Harvest Week for Island Grown Schools Program
During Harvest Week, students at schools across the Island were busy preparing recipes from produce they had grown themselves. Thanks to the Island Grown Schools Program, made possible by volunteers from Island Grown Initiative (IGI), the concepts of sustainability, nutritional value, and carrying on the Vineyard agricultural tradition are being introduced to our children at an early age.
The Island Grown Schools Program, with its mission of educating children on the ecological practices that sustain Island farms, began in December 2007 with a meeting of IGI representatives, local chefs, and parents.
The initial goal was to help local farmers grow more food and to be able to afford to grow it year-round. Less than two years later, the program has blossomed to encompass the Island's six elementary schools, including the Charter School, and the regional high school, where in addition to raising some of their own vegetables and cooking their own food, students study the politics and policies surrounding nutrition and the production of food. The high school students also sell the fruits and vegetables they grow to residents of Woodside Village for an affordable price of one dollar per bag.
Each school and most of the nursery schools now have their own gardens. At Oak Bluffs School there's even a greenhouse.
The first school gardens were planned in early 2008 and planted in the spring. Over the summer, families adopted the various gardens for weeks at a time, weeding and maintaining them. With the autumn harvest, the effort was brought full circle. It was time for the students to enjoy the fruits - and vegetables - of their labor.
On Friday of Harvest Week, Alice Robinson's eighth grade Family Consumer Service class at Tisbury School prepared a variety of potato dishes using crops harvested from their school garden. To experience the difference in the taste and quality of their homegrown produce from other varieties, the students also prepared blue potatoes and Idaho potatoes.
Ms. Robinson explained that because it is picked and sold at its peak ripeness, local food looks better and tastes better. It also retains its nutrients because it has just been harvested. She told the class that the nutrients are best preserved during food preparation by not cutting the vegetables before cooking, baking instead of frying, and avoiding high cooking temperatures.
Permitted to choose their own recipes, the students selected oven-baked French fries and sweet potato fries. "For many of the students, today is the first time they've eaten a food made from an ingredient that they've seeded, grown, harvested and cooked themselves," Ms. Robinson said.
Izey Canham of Edgartown noticed the difference of the French fries the students made from some of the astounding 28 pounds of potatoes they grew in a 4- by 8-foot plot. "They're not squishy like fast food," she said.
Melinda DeFeo, enrichment director for The FARM Institute (TFI) at Katama Farm in Edgartown, one of the founding members of IGI, is one of the program's volunteers. "Our goal is to see more local produce offered in Island schools, not only to improve the nutritional content of kids' meals prepared in their cafeterias and to support local farmers, but also to educate a new generation of farmers," she said. Ms. DeFeo works with teachers to find creative ways to bring the goals of the Island Grown Schools program into their curriculums.
This past Friday, "Discovery Friday," at the Chilmark School, the focus was carrots. Teacher Robin Smith asked the school's 38 students (grades K through 5) whether they could turn orange from eating too many carrots. Only a handful of children dared to speculate that they could. Yes, Ms. Smith confirmed. One can develop an orange hue from the large amounts of vitamin A in the vegetable.
Next, herbalist Holly Bellebuono, a volunteer, asked the children if they've ever eaten foods from the wild - foods that no person had actively planted. "Blackberries!" "Mint!" Huckleberries!" the students responded.
The children then sampled the organically grown carrots harvested from their school garden, conventionally grown carrots from the grocery store, and wild carrots harvested in Chilmark. Then they voted on the variety of carrot they'd liked best.
Although there were a number of nods toward the spicy taste and unusual texture of the wild carrots, the garden grown variety was the clear winner among the young gourmets.
Although children often shy away from eating vegetables, Ms. Smith observed, "If they grow it themselves, they'll eat it."
The day's activities culminated with kindergarten students serving their schoolmates slices of carrot cake - arguably the best this writer has tasted - that they had baked themselves earlier in the day using carrots from their garden.
Noli Taylor, volunteer coordinator for IGI, was instrumental in bringing the program into Vineyard schools. She explained the trend toward similar programs throughout the United States. "The program we have on the Vineyard is the broadest I've seen," Ms. Taylor said. "I believe it will serve as a excellent pilot program for schools throughout the country."
Anne McCarthy Strauss is a freelance writer living in Oak Bluffs.