Wholesome Generation Grows Austin’s Future Health Foodies with Community-Driven Curriculum
Meet Your Passionate Local Plant People
When Lene Saint-Orens moved to Austin in 2001 and took a job in HR with the University of Texas, she had no idea that a few years later she would be opening Wholesome Generation, an educational academy with a living, community-integrated food, cooking, and regenerative farm curriculum. But in this transition she has found her purpose and is passionate about sharing it with our youth and their families.
“We want to change our students from the inside out — in healthy ways,” she says as she walks through the Wholesome Generation’s five-and-a-half-acre campus pointing out all of their outdoor classroom spaces, including an open air garden space, 100-square-foot greenhouse, a creek bed and an apiary. Originally Tonkawa land, this refuge in the heart of North Austin is quickly becoming surrounded by large developments of houses being built immediately on the other side of their property line. “Here, we want to keep the land sacred and apply appropriate uses for it like the Tonkawa people did. We inspire the conservation of native plants, provide a habitat for pollinators, foster opportunities to learn about local food and regenerative farming methods, and enhance human health and well-being.”
Before Lene made the decision to open Wholesome Generation, her daughter was attending a public elementary school in Austin and was not flourishing.
“She was constantly sick, and her emotional health was suffering too,” she recalls. This prompted Saint-Orens to research what could be done to help not only her daughter, but other children who were suffering the same ailments as well. Growing up in Germany with her mother and grandmother, Lene also struggled with the traditional schooling system. Her grandmother taught her gardening and enrolled her in equine therapy where she finally began to thrive, influencing her choice to create a similar structure at Wholesome Generation.
Based on the Reggio Emilia philosophy (founded in Northern Italy after WWII), WG’s model expands beyond the traditional nine month school calendar. It is a year round program that includes summer camps, “Food For Life” culinary + market program and extended community programs focused on sustainability, land preservation, mental health and learning holistic life skills and practices. Lessons emphasize hands-on activities in garden, kitchen and outdoor settings, but also include activities that deepen academic inquiry in related fields, such as science, mathematics, social studies and language arts. By cultivating their gardens, and with it their educational programs, they have become a hub for food security and nature education.
What is taught about food and healthy eating in lessons is reflected and reinforced in the daily life of the school with the outdoor culinary lab and food bus, as well as gardens, becoming their classrooms. Gardening begins at 18 months old and all of the students are encouraged to help one another during the process. They learn about biodiversity and how it affects growing produce seasonally, incorporating all of the different kinds of life that can be found on campus from the native plants to the chickens to the bees. In addition to their open air garden, they’ve added a large greenhouse to offer more options for the students’ beds.
The produce grown on the WG campus serves many purposes, including supplying their on-site food truck. This provides another opportunity for life experience where the children are taught how to prepare plant-based lunches and snacks for the student population every day. There are no machines in the food truck and every plate is prepared by hand. Each meal is raw and gluten free, providing an excellent alternative to over-processed foods that can lead to brain fog and disruptions in the classroom. Collaborating with a community of local vendors and farmers, with a dedication to sustainable agriculture, assures their kitchen a weekly supply of fresh and delicious ingredients, and extra meals and boxes of fresh vegetables can also be sent home with each student to help support their families at the end of each day.
On the last Friday of every month, you can find the entire campus buzzing with excitement as they host a farmer’s market day where they not only invite local farms and vendors to sell their goods but where grades two through five each have their own stand in order to sell what they’ve been cultivating. Each class is responsible for maintaining their area of the garden, planting, curating and harvesting the crops, creating a booth for the market, and selling their produce. Through this multifaceted experience the are children learning math, time management, organizational skills, marketing, social interaction and multiple other lessons in a real life setting that they can continue to take forward with them.
With the implementation of a diversity focused ‘edible’ curriculum, Wholesome Generation offers culturally inclusive meals and methods where students are empowered to help guide the process. But Wholesome Generation’s lessons don’t stop in the classroom. The program reaches out beyond the school gates into the wider public and neighborhoods, extending healthy meals and learning experiences to families with donation-based workshops and other interactive events such as Earth Day celebrations, volunteer days and plant markets.
Their newest project, the FOOD FOR LIFE bus, will extend services and produce to Austin’s most vulnerable and low-income neighborhoods. This mobile culinary classroom focuses on regenerative education and getting fresh, sustainable, produce into home kitchens, regardless of their ability to pay.
“We want to use food traditions to teach, nurture and empower all students,” Saint-Orens says of this unique model for connecting with the community. With this plan they will be able to educate some of the most underserved areas of the city while raising awareness and boost interest in the food for life concept.
WG is working hard to change food culture, contributing to community-wide whole systems change, and impacting education, sustainability, inequalities, communities and health. By stepping outside the box of modern food systems and into the box of the food systems of our ancestors, Saint-Ornes’ ultimate vision has come to life in this living classroom.
“The goal is not to judge, but to educate. We want to give them a purpose and move from a culture of ‘consume’ to a culture of ‘create.’”