From Seed to Plate in LA
Chez Melange is located in Redondo Beach, a small coastal city just south of Los Angeles. The upscale restaurant has been in business for more than 30 years and touts “local, rustic, seasonal, delicious” food. It might surprise some diners to learn that much of the produce used in the meals is grown incredibly close to home by adults participating in the vocational Seed to Plate program.
Seed to Plate’s Roots
In 2001, the Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified School District (PVPUSD) was preparing for a change: Local special needs students whose education had previously been handled by the Los Angeles County Office of Education were being transitioned back to PVPUSD.
“PVPUSD needed a vocational component for the students to return to the district,” explains Nancy Lemargie, program consultant and garden manager.
At the time, Lemargie was a horticulture instructor at the Southern California Regional Occupational Center. With the help of the school district and Chez Melange, she agreed to become a consultant for Seed to Plate. The program is geared toward adult special needs students in the PVPUSD who are transitioning into independent life.
“[The] Seed to Plate program benefits the adult special needs students for PVPUSD by giving them training in gardening, but the most important things are the soft skills they learn while doing the gardening: listening, cooperating, critical thinking, working as a team, being on time, taking a break on time, [and] cleaning up their personal area,” Lemargie explains. “These are the things that are most important in vocational learning.”
The Seeds of Success
While the students are learning, the garden grows, and its harvest benefits the restaurant that helped start it all. Chez Melange receives weekly shipments of produce from Seed to Plate, and anything not sent to the restaurant is sold to raise funds for the garden.
“We have started our own farmer’s market on the second Saturday of the month,” says Lemargie. “We also have a nursery and gift shop where we sell the students’ crafts and plants. Most of the garden is dedicated to growing for the restaurant, and then the rest is used for our farmer’s market.”
What the garden grows is largely dictated by what’s in season, but the lot supplies an impressive variety of vegetables.
“We grow seasonal vegetables, and within that parameter the restaurant tells us what they would like. We grow lots of Toscano kale, beans, tomatoes, lettuces, radishes, [and] peas,” says Lemargie. “We also have chickens and supply the restaurant with fresh eggs.”
The quality of Seed to Plate’s produce is evident in how eager Chez Melange is to serve it, and in the reputation the restaurant has for delicious local food.
“This is our second garden,” explains Lemargie. “The first one was too small to grow the amount of vegetables that Chez Melange wanted, so we were placed on a piece of district property that is over an acre in size. Through local advertising, the garden has become [the] go-to place for vegetables in the neighborhood.”
Lemargie has seen Seed to Plate grow from its humble beginnings, both in size and the scope of opportunities it provides.
“The Seed to Plate program started originally as vocational training, to grow vegetables for the restaurant, [and] it has turned into a beautiful park-like atmosphere with areas for picnics, orchards, extensive vegetables, gardens, [a] gift shop, [a] greenhouse built by the students, and a small nursery,” Lemargie says. “It is a beautiful oasis south of Los Angeles.”
While Chez Melange benefits from the garden’s fresh vegetables, the students and local community are the true beneficiaries. The community has gained a beautiful garden, and the adult special needs students gain important life skills as they work the earth there, while also deriving great enjoyment from the work.
“Many students may not ever be farmers, but they may work in a local retail nursery, and I feel that is a good place to start training,” says Lemargie. “We also have a Mommy and Me class for 2- to 4-year-olds, and a large volunteer force that doubles as a learning experience for children as young as 9 and adults as old as 70.”