Sparking Joy: Lydia Yamaguchi cultivates cultural connections in school gardens

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Lydia Yamaguchi. photo by Alec Yoshio MacDonald

Lydia Yamaguchi. photo by Alec Yoshio MacDonald

Visiting her grandparents as a child, Lydia Yamaguchi caught a captivating preview of her future career.

“My ojiichan had a pretty epic backyard garden,” she raved. “It felt like a little bit of a magical wonderland.”

Down in the suburban Orange County city of Tustin, Yamaguchi’s grandfather had set up a space behind his house for cultivating “everything that you could possibly grow in that climate and then some.” He churned out a cornucopia of crops such as beans, tomatoes and cucumbers, and maintained fruit trees that gave Yamaguchi one of her first tastes of a fresh-grown peach.

Straining to recall the full bounty of that backyard, she hypothesized, “I’m pretty sure he had eggplant, because he really liked eating eggplant,” before adding, “I just remember so many raised beds, and I was like, ‘How does all of this fit in this backyard?’”

Her chances to explore the space came mainly during Easter egg hunts or when her grandfather would “walk us through and show us what was growing, and maybe pick something.” Garden harvests often passed through the kitchen, where Yamaguchi’s grandmother — “the best cook that I have known” — would transform those fresh vegetables into tsukemono (Japanese pickles) and okazu (side dish). New Year celebrations prompted her grandmother to whip up dishes like nishime (a dish with simmered vegetables and other ingredients) and tempura, but a more routine offering of sautéed green beans with bacon stands as Yamaguchi’s favorite.

She sees her grandparents’ dedication to food production as a means of cultural preservation. Prior to World War II, both their families had worked in farming — her grandfather’s in the Salinas Valley and her grandmother’s near the Palos Verdes Peninsula. Following their wartime incarceration and subsequent release from separate prison camps, they met in the Los Angeles area and “started working in other industries,” bringing about what Yamaguchi described as “a disconnect from the land that they had tended, and from that way of life.” She said her grandfather held on to his agricultural identity by gardening, an activity through which “he kept that connection going.”

Relating this past to her current reality, the 30-year-old Yonsei declared, “It feels special to be able to keep that connection going in some way in the things that I do.”

As a wellness specialist for the Oakland Unified School District, Yamaguchi works with a team that supports school gardens across the city. They provide seeds, plant starts, mulch, compost and tools to those gardens, along with curriculum ideas and other informational resources. Based out of the District’s new Central Kitchen, Instructional Farm, and Education Center in West Oakland, the team also helps host school field trips, welcoming students in for tours of the facility’s greenhouse and raised beds.

“At the Center, we’ve gotten to do things like tasting raw vegetables that have been grown right here in this space,” noted Yamaguchi, adding that her coworkers have also taught classes on how to make kim chi and empanadas. She said visiting the Center gives students a chance to “see foods maybe that they’ve eaten often with their families, as well as foods that they’ve never tried before, and also try them in different stages” — all of which she hopes will enrich their understanding of how food systems operate.

In pursuit of that goal, the District runs a program called Harvest of the Month, which highlights seasonal, locally sourced produce. Every month, school cafeterias showcase a designated fruit or vegetable, the broader significance of which Yamaguchi and her colleagues explain with “education materials — everything from activity sheets, to lessons, to games, to videos — that we create.”

Yamaguchi’s favorite Harvest of the Month selection is the persimmon, featured last November.

Referring to the fruit by its Japanese name, she said, “I grew up with a kaki tree in my family’s backyard down in Long Beach,” proclaiming, “it’s something that I love.” Expressing a preference for the fuyu cultivar over the hachiya cultivar, she mentioned that her parents had mailed her boxes of kaki from the family’s tree “as a little taste of home” when she was in college on the other side of the country.

“When they come up as part of our cycle of Harvest of the Month,” Yamaguchi said, “I get a little bit extra excited.” The District’s promotion of persimmons has allowed her to express “my identity as a Japanese American person participating in the food system” while raising awareness that “Japanese people have a long history of cultivating them for a variety of uses.” Her relevant contributions to Harvest of the Month education materials have included a pair of videos: one at the end of 2020 demonstrating how to make hoshigaki (dried persimmons), and the other last year documenting her visit to a persimmon orchard in Japan’s Wakayama Prefecture.

Sharing footage of her overseas trip “felt like a way to bring that joy, a little bit of that whimsy, that cultural connection, across an ocean, across a city.”

This outlook reflects Yamaguchi’s attitude toward her work in general. As she summarized, “I think of gardening as something so joyful in many ways.” Having facilitated gardening education within the District since 2015, she knows from experience that upbeat encouragement can help newcomers overcome any sense of intimidation and embrace the activity.

“So for whoever’s out there that’s like, ‘Gardening’s cool, but I don’t know if it’s my thing,’” she invited them to simply dive in and give it a try. “Seeing what happens and what lights that spark,” she said, “is a great place to start.”

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