A Grounded Education

Nearly 25 schools and learning centers on the East End have sprouted gardens, from small patches to spacious greenhouses and internships.

School gardens—it’s an idea growing faster than Jack’s beanstalk. It’s about education, nutrition, health, community, politics and all that grown-up stuff, but down where the kids meet the dirt, it’s about the most magical thing of all, our essential connection with the land, the cycle of the seasons and life itself.

“It’s really beautiful in our garden,” says Zoe Lucas, who is in fifth grade at Bridgehampton School, where one of the first school gardens in the region was planted five years ago. That garden is now 5,000 square feet, and has a 30-by-36-foot heated greenhouse. “I definitely like gardening. I learned about the plants, how to put them in and what a weed looks like, and about different kinds of beans and what comes early and what comes late. But I definitely liked the watermelons the best.”

Through planning, planting, weeding, watering, harvesting, counting, weighing, measuring, working cooperatively and, of course, eating, a school garden teaches valuable lessons. It’s a tactile, dynamic environment that engages a child’s intellect and emotions and creates the kind of experiential learning that good educators love. Gardening is outdoors and physical and promotes good health: school lunches get healthier when garden produce is used, as in Quogue School’s all-you-can-eat salad bar; students learn the joy of seeing hard work pay off, as when Sag Harbor elementary students turned one pound of red wiggler worms into three pounds (using little more than snack scraps and shredded newspaper), or when Hayground School students recently mounded up soil around the 112-foot perimeter of their new greenhouse. “It’s an authentic endeavor,” says Jon Snow, a founding teacher at the Hayground School, where he runs the art studio as well as the gardens, greenhouse and chicken yard. “Something you do that has real-life meaningful application. It’s not a mimic of a body of knowledge. It’s an actionable thing.”

THE SCHOOL GARDEN MOVEMENT IS LIKE A LIVING THING

It started with a seed—an idea. Like all ideas, once it took root, it spread. Right now, school gardens are fast springing up across the country and evolving as the movement develops layers of communication, information dissemination, advocacy and awareness campaigns, and access to local, state and national resources and funding.

The idea also adapts to its environment. Some school gardens are smallish patches that, to the delight of the students, yield just enough vegetables to make a few salads. Some have greenhouses, chicken coops, worm-composting bins, eco-walks and summer programs, and produce more kale than anyone knows what to do with. Some gardens flourish; others struggle with coordination among volunteers and school administration.

“It’s not a one-size-fits-all,” says Ann Cooper, a chef, author and passionate advocate, who has become a national leader of the school gardens movement. She is the former food services director at Ross School in East Hampton—where she launched their impressive lunch program and ran a study with Harvard scientists showing that Ross students and teachers had lower levels of pesticides in their bodies after eating the organic school lunches. Cooper is currently food services director of the Boulder, Colorado, school district, a group of 50 schools, half of which have gardens. “The schools that do best have strong administration, staff and PTA support; they really thrive, and the garden becomes systemic in that it gets integrated into education programs.”

In Eastern Suffolk County, there are now almost 25 school gardens in different stages of development, according to estimates from Edible School Gardens of the East End, a volunteer group founded five years ago on the South Fork to help get these gardens off the ground. “We want to improve the food in schools in general and connect children to what food is and where it comes from,” says Judiann Carmack-Fayyaz, who is the chair of the group, as well as the chair of Slow Food East End and a teacher at Bridgehampton School. She started the group along with chef Bryan Futerman of Foody’s restaurant in Water Mill.

The monthly gatherings are animated work sessions where teachers, students, cooks and farmers share tips and advice on how to navigate the building codes that apply to greenhouses, how to find grants that will pay for raised beds or how to teach middle-schoolers about soil. The group also identifies a few people “on the ground” at each school district who are interested in starting a school garden. Meetings often include like-minded organizations like the Joshua Levine Memorial Foundation, Slow Food, Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County, the Peconic Land Trust and others. For instance, Slow Food provides a $4,000 annual stipend for three “Master Farmer” coordinators to provide expert assistance to the gardens; this year they are Jeff Negron, KK Haspel and Marguerite Nesteruk. “We all learn from each other, and we grow,” says Carmack-Fayyaz.

GARDENS GROW FROM THE GROUND UP

From what Cooper has seen, a grassroots approach like the Edible School Gardens group is essential. School gardens cannot be imposed from the top down. First Lady Michelle Obama, probably the most nationally prominent advocate, seems to realize this also. Through her “Let’s Move!” campaign battling childhood obesity, she has given the school garden movement added visibility by planting a garden at the White House, yet she also reaches out to communities. “Chefs Move to Schools,” launched in 2010, creates local partnerships. Rosa Ross, chef/owner of Greenport’s Scrimshaw restaurant, was invited to join the initiative and has since worked with Greenport students to help create from school garden ingredients Hanna’s Balsamic Vinaigrette, which is sold as a fund-raiser for the garden.

While it’s too early to know exactly why some gardens thrive and others struggle, it’s apparent that family and community involvement is an important component. That means adult volunteers are needed to hold fund-raisers and help supervise kids to weed, water and harvest even during school vacations.

“That’s actually one of our biggest challenges,” says David Gamberg, superintendent of Southold School, “keeping the garden going over the summer. You need dedicated people, and a lot of effort. It can’t be left to itself, or it will perish.”

Another essential component for a successful school garden is support from school administration and integration into the education system. Southold School garden, the first on the North Fork, started in 2011 and grew quickly, in part because of Gamberg’s enthusiasm. Administration must be willing to deal with insurance, liability and contracting with the school’s food service provider for a school garden to work, as well as encourage teachers to find creative ways to use the garden, he says.

GARDENS NEED FERTILIZER

It’s nice to think that all one needs is a packet of seeds and willing volunteers, but funding is necessary. Creating a garden means preparing soil, building raised beds, installing deer fencing, and purchasing tools, soil amendments and plant material and more. Hayground and Ross, independent schools on the South Fork, have had robust school garden programs since their founding (Hayground’s first garden dates to 1997), supported by tuition paid by parents, as well as fund-raisers, and integrated with a curriculum devoted to food literacy and cafeterias that serve healthy and diverse meals. For public schools, fund-raisers and donations of goods and services by local individuals and businesses are equally essential, perhaps more so, since gardening is a relatively new interest compared to art, music or science. The Bridgehampton school garden started with a spectacularly successful $300,000 community fund-raiser. Springs School garden was funded by $60,000 raised locally and a long list of donors, including Project Most. Riverhead Building Supply helped the Child Development Center of the Hamptons start its garden.

School gardens also access funds from nonprofits and the government. Grant money has been used to seed a number of new gardens. Slow Food East End donated $5,000 to start the Greenport School garden, for example, an effort almost entirely executed by school employees Carol Worth and Jeannie Calderale. The New York State Department of Health awarded a $1.2 million grant to Cornell Cooperative Extension to fund a five-year program, called Creating Healthy Places, in Suffolk County. It’s administered by program director Susan Wilk, and, in a coup for the school gardens movement, some of the money is going toward the Good Ground Community Garden on the grounds of Hampton Bays Middle School, the first community-school hybrid in the region.

GARDENS GIVE MUCH MORE THAN JUST VEGGIES

Nature has a way of surprising us—it’s become apparent that the school garden movement is sending tendrils into education and even that large cog in the industrial food machine, school lunch.

“Teachers are using the garden more for education, in science, in art and in literary skills, Gamberg says. “We have a wonderful group of dedicated teachers and volunteers, and there’s been a real embrace of this as an outdoor classroom.” The garden also now teaches kids business, advertising and commerce. Kids displayed and sold produce at the Greenport Farmers Market this summer, raising about $1,500, and the sixth and seventh graders are now doing analysis and spreadsheets on the project.

“It’s at the point where kids expect it to be part of their school experience, and one of the next challenges is to integrate it into the high school curriculum, as in soil analysis, botany and agriculture,” he says. A greenhouse is planned and will be located by the high school wing to facilitate that. This project-based learning is the direction schools should be moving in, Gamberg says, “even though we’re confronted with the challenge of high-stakes testing and all these things going in the opposite direction.”

Other schools teach cooking classes using school garden produce: Greenport School’s “Home and Careers” cooking class used sweet potatoes, basil and eggplants. Hayground School is researching and designing a medicinal plants section, and students sell goods like garlic scape pesto at the local farmers market. East Hampton High School starts a new class this fall on sustainable gardening. At Tuckahoe, a small K–6 in Southampton, food director Matt Doris has incorporated food from the garden into the lunch menu, tracked amounts and costs and has actually saved the district money.

Higher-ups in education are taking notice. Southold School hosted a school gardens expo in May, which members of the New York State Board of Regents attended, along with representatives of regional nonprofits. “It was great exposure on the state level of what school gardens can bring to the whole education system,” says Carmack-Fayyaz. “We’re hoping to make it an annual event.”

As for school lunch, that bastion of fries and nuggets, there’s hope, especially with school garden advocates like Bill Whitcomb Jr. He sees the issue from the perspective of a food service provider, as the director of operations at the Whitcomb family company, Whitsons Culinary Group, based in Islandia, New York. Whitsons runs the cafeterias in Bridgehampton, Greenport and many other school districts in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Massachusetts.

“I don’t care if all I get is a pound of lettuce from a school garden, I’ll work with it,” he says. “Making school gardens part of food service, that’s where we want to go. We’re making progress. I wish it could change overnight. But from what I have learned working with many districts, you have to take it slow and make every step count. That’s how it will take root and last.”

There’s a shift in the food service industry to incorporate locally sourced or sustainable food, or green practices, and Whitsons reports that it is sourcing more than 50 percent of its ingredients from the region—a big increase from just a few years ago. Making the connection with school gardens is the natural next step and can really help to empower those projects, he says. “The food service provider is a contractor, and meets with administration, and can help create the structure that will make school garden produce reach the school cafeteria in a professional way.” This involves education on food safety regulations in harvesting, cleaning and storing produce, and projected schedules and invoices. “There’s the potential to bring school gardens to a whole new level of integration into the school, and the food service provider is best positioned to do that.”

Indeed, the future looks bright. Two years ago, Carmack-Fayyaz and colleagues estimated that over 10,000 students were being impacted by the gardens then in existence, a figure that has likely jumped. As this school year begins, Carmack-Fayyaz reports a spike in new inquiries from teachers and parents, including in school districts in western Suffolk County. She even points to some hopeful national trends: “Since the school garden movement started and food awareness became an issue, the obesity rate among children in the U.S. has actually dropped for the first time.”

The school gardens movement, as successful as it is already, is still young. It will continue to grow and evolve and create new offshoots. Like cookbooks: Bridgehampton School launched a Kickstarter campaign and raised $20,000 to create the simple and kid-friendly Nutritious, Delicious Foodbook, which will be distributed this fall free of charge to 10,000 students on the North and South forks. Look for the green smoothie recipe; it’s a great way to use up all that kale.

Karsten’s science class. Springs School kindergarteners care for tomatoes in the school’s greenhouse; Kryn Olson’s students at Sag Harbor Elementary harvest beets.

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Gwendolen Groocock is the editor of the Greenport Guide, and writes about food, wine, travel and mommyhood from her home on the North Fork.