Food for Thought

Local kids are learning about nutrition in school.

Some might question in disbelief— gardening during winter in New York City? But classrooms throughout the five boroughs are getting back to their roots this season with gardening education. As the school gardening movement inspired by First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign continues to gain momentum throughout the country, regional resources are at the ready to bring education about planting, produce and other nutritional wisdom to students.

Supported by scientific research that gardening education is an effective weapon in the war against childhood obesity, the resources are essential to create health-literate students. A prime example of a resource in New York City is the Veggiecation Program and its partnership with The Ground Up Campaign. Both enable hundreds of public elementary school students throughout the city to gain hands-on agricultural experience. The donation of indoor academic gardens and nutrition education materials makes this possible.

Organized by New York City’s Department of Education, SchoolFood is the largest school food service provider in the nation, bringing meals to students in all types of schools. SchoolFood supports gardening education through the Garden to Café Program. This program allows garden harvests to be served as a part of a cafeteria’s lunch program in order to expose inner city students to fresh produce in its natural form and enjoy garden-to-table dining.

Rising food consciousness in America has led many parents, educators and policy makers to recognize the need to connect students to food sources. Ideally, a sustainable and healthful food system is one that we all contribute to with our own family patch of fresh produce. As most inner city families do not have access to gardening centers, however, this is not realistic. Likewise, engaging students with activities like classroom gardening is a vital key to teaching youth that homegrown food is a substantial source of nourishment.

This past October, The Ground Up Campaign, an initiative of the Birds Nest Foundation, provided 100 academic garden kits to under-served New York City schools committed to creating a healthier school environment. The donation included a raised-bed garden with eight inches of soil space, a trellis, grow light, organic soil and seeds, gardening tools and a companion curriculum developed by Veggiecation, which donated its curriculum-based nutrition education program. Veggiecation teaches elementary students the importance of health and nutrition and provides teachers with interactive activities to guide children in making smart food choices.

Equipped with academic garden kits, the Veggiecation Program and an in-depth training course, teachers have been providing real-life lessons about health to classrooms that are now full of budding horticulturists and culinarians. For the remainder of the school year, students will learn how to plant and tend to an array of vegetables, lettuces and herbs, before proudly tasting what they have grown. Elizabeth Reed, a teacher at P.S. 146 in East Harlem, is thrilled to have such resources in her school. “This is a huge gain for our school,” Reed says. “It brings to life the conversations around food sustainability as we are able to garden and cook right in our classrooms.”

Using the 100-plus recipes Veggiecation designed to prepare in a classroom setting with budget-friendly ingredients and limited kitchen supplies, schoolchildren learn the joy of harvesting and cooking their own produce. Veggiecation chef Nancy Burgos-Jackson says, “As a parent and school food expert, I know firsthand how helpful getting children involved in the cooking process is when trying to entice them to eat new foods. Once they have ownership of a dish, they are much more likely to taste it and discover something delicious that will help them grow up healthy.”

Mayor Michael Bloomberg supports the efforts of The Ground Up Campaign through a partnership with the Grow to Learn NYC: Citywide School Gardens Initiative. The initiative manages daily operations, offering a centralized location for coordinating fundraising and the management and promotion of school gardens. Expanding the work to include indoor gardens proved to be a natural fit with the Grow to Learn team. “It truly takes a village to build a school garden,” says Erica Keberle, citywide school gardens coordinator. “Grow to Learn NYC is pleased to partner with The Ground Up Campaign to help more schools continue to grow and learn during the winter months.”

To learn more about Veggiecation and The Ground Up Campaign, visit www.veggiecation.com.