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School district says no to fruit trees

SAN DIEGO UNION TRIBUNE

by Maureen Magee

Visiting ecology group plants for shade instead

Johnny Appleseed apparently can't be trusted in San Diego.

A caravan of earth-loving ecology educators launched a statewide fruit tree-planting tour at Clark Middle School in City Heights yesterday.

Traveling in 30-year-old school buses that have been hand- painted and run on vegetable oil, the environmentalists will visit 20 cities and plant 1,000 fruit trees in hopes of teaching urban students about sustainable ecology and the benefits of eating locally grown food.

But San Diego students will get shade instead of fruit.

The San Diego Unified School District is the only district on the tour to put the kibosh on the fruit trees. Administrators worried students would use the peaches, guavas and plums as weapons instead of food.

"Fruit trees create more of a mess, and fruit does tend to be used as a projectile with students," said district maintenance and operations supervisor Mark Everts. "This is precautionary. We've never had fruit trees planted at a school."

Although fruitless, the show went on yesterday. Musicians beat on African drums and loose-limbed dancers performed for students to demonstrate how various cultures honor the earth and its bounty.

Then students planted flowering jacaranda trees, New Zealand Christmas trees and other nonthreatening, nonfruit-bearing trees.

Organizers didn't let the setback -- or the rainy weather -- dampen their upbeat message. But the irony was not lost, either.

"The idea of seeing fruit as something to throw is indicative of . . . a problem," said Michael Flynn, education director for the nonprofit Common Vision.

The district frowns on fruit trees not only for the potential for violence but because of the bugs and mess that can accompany them. The district landscaping budget has been severely cut in the past two years and gardeners are overworked as it is.

Common Vision organizers said the program is designed to attract beneficial bugs like ladybugs and bees. And they said fruit trees are not that hard to maintain.

Students still took pride in sprucing up their campus.

"I felt a little sad we couldn't have fruit," said seventh- grader Teresita Zuniga, 12. "But we still got a lot of kids together to plant. And we try to spread peace."

Common Vision will plant fruit trees on 45 campuses in Los Angeles, Oakland, San Jose and elsewhere in hopes that urban students will understand that eating locally grown food benefits farmers and the earth.

There is something about eating an apple grown here, Flynn said, as opposed to eating an apple grown in Chile that was shipped thousands of miles on planes that pollute the environment.

"It's too bad because a lot of kids in San Diego who come from Guatemala and Central America, where coffee and bananas have completely eliminated land for indigenous farmers," he said. "This is a very relevant lesson here."

Today, the buses will head to New City Charter School in downtown Long Beach. They will also plant 75 fruit trees at two schools in South Central Los Angeles.

Ted Hamory, co-director of New City Charter School, chuckled at San Diego's policy. For five years, New City, which serves mostly poor and minority students, has been growing fruit and vegetables without incident. They eat some of the harvest and sell some at their own farmers market.

"It's been great for everyone -- the kids and the community," he said. "Students get a sense of ownership about the campus and they have respect for the environment."

Organizers, administrators and students were hopeful San Diego Unified would change its policy. They plan to plant a fig tree in a wooden box as a symbol of their goal.

"We don't need to focus on problems, we need to focus on solutions to the problems that hold us back as a people and as a culture," said Blair Phillips, the director and founder of Common Vision.

Clark's vice principal, Michael George, also vowed to help students accomplish their goal. He is working to help establish a campus vegetable garden for students.

"I agree with what these people are doing," George said. "But we are also going to follow district policy."

Clark is a big campus in a tough part of town where gang violence is prevalent. George said violence killed five students and former students last year.

A student club that works to stop violence helped organize the tree-planting effort.

"The kids planting trees on campus -- that's very important," he said. "It's not what we plant, it's why we plant."

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