Ava Castro is the preschool farm-to-school educator at Island Grown Schools (IGS), one of the first programs of the Island Grown Initiative (IGI), a community nonprofit dedicated to creating a resilient and sustainable food system on Martha’s Vineyard. Castro is one of five paid educators on staff at IGI.
When IGS began in 2007, Castro was in high school at the M.V. Public Charter School, and says she doesn’t really remember doing any gardening in school: “When I was little, we had a school garden, but the kids didn’t really use it.” Having grown up on-Island with a father who owns an oyster farm in Katama, Castro was more familiar with farming the waters of the Island.
After graduating high school, Castro went on to Hampshire College, where her love of gardening and working with young children developed. She created her own major in agriculture and alternative education, and as Castro’s interest in farm education increased, she said, “working for IGS was my dream job, but I didn’t really know if it would work out.”
When Castro applied for the preschool educator position with IGS, Emily Armstrong, director of education for IGI, remembers thinking, “Oh my gosh, here is this person who created a major about this specific thing that we’re hiring for.” Castro had always planned to return to the Island after college, and was excited about the prospect of working for IGS. “Working with little kids is the best. It was just meant to be,” she says.
IGI began as a community potluck dinner in 2006, focused on long-term food system change work, and within a year, IGS was created. Noli Taylor, senior director of programs, identified that educating the youngest Islanders about where food comes from was key to raising consciousness about sustainable agriculture.
IGI has grown significantly since then. Ten years ago they acquired the old Thimble Farm in Vineyard Haven, where they grow their own vegetables and lease land to local farmers. They run the food equity program, making prepared foods and supplying produce to the food pantry, and IGI inspired the community seed library at the West Tisbury library, where you can check out seeds, grow them, and then collect and save the seeds and return them. And there is tremendous support from the community for the IGS farm-to-school programming.
As the preschool educator, Castro also took over the Harvest of the Month, or HOM, a highly integrated community-based program modeled after programs in Oregon and California, intended to further the farm-to-community connection. Perhaps you’ve seen the vividly colored posters around the Island at places like Morning Glory Farm, Cronig’s, West Tisbury library, and the Food Pantry. Or perhaps you’ve read the HOM column in The Times. At the beginning of the year, Castro and others at IGI selected 12 seasonal crops to be featured in a monthly newsletter and poster. They also try to pick local, culturally responsive crops such as jiló, which is really important to the Brazilian community, or cranberries, which are really important to the Wampanoag Tribe. One of Castro’s favorite HOM features happens to be this month’s featured crop, herbs: “I think herbs are fun and there are so many different things you can do with them.”
The HOM newsletter offers nutrition information, tips for growing and harvesting, and a recipe utilizing each month’s featured crop. This year’s recipes are being provided by chefs and owners of Mo’s Lunch at the Portuguese-American Club, Maura Martin and Austin Racine, and this month’s featured recipe is Herb Compound Butter. Another favorite crop of Castro’s is cucumbers. She loves making pickles with the kids.
Each of the 11 preschools that Castro teaches at has a garden, which is part of an integrative curriculum with math, English language arts, and lots of science and observation tied to what students are learning about in the classroom. This February, cabbage was the HOM, and Castro made dye with the students, using purple cabbage. They used the dye to make their own “Play-Doh,” and changed its color by adding baking soda or cream of tartar, which changes the pH and makes the Play-Doh either hot pink or teal.
Castro’s favorite part of teaching the kids is being outdoors. “Around April, I’m itching to get back outside, because it is sometimes challenging to entertain them inside,” she says. Her students do most of the work because, Castro says, “it’s their garden, not mine.” They pull weeds, mix compost into the soil with their little tools, decide what seeds or seedlings to plant, and, of course, they help with the watering. “It’s their favorite thing to do,” Castro says.
Watering may be the preschoolers’ favorite thing, but Castro’s is harvesting. Two weeks ago, she picked carrots with them. “They were so excited, because they’ve seen carrots, but they’ve never pulled them out of the ground,” she said.
Castro says it is fun to see how willing kids are to taste things. Even the pickiest of eaters get excited to taste something new when they’ve had a hand in growing it. Castro remembers, “Last week I had an entire class eating raw kale. I don’t even necessarily enjoy eating raw kale, and they were inhaling it!” She has learned that if you take off the pressure to try things, it really makes a difference: “I just tell them you do not have to try this if you don’t want to. End of story.” If they are making a recipe indoors, she lets them smell it, poke it, or just watch their friends eat it. “A lot of times they’ll end up tasting it because they get curious.”
In addition to running the gardens and the HOM, Castro sends out the Island Grown at Home newsletter to more than 1,000 people. She started the newsletter during COVID, when IGS wasn’t able to teach in the schools. The newsletter, with its lessons and HOM recipes, can be found on the IGI website, which, according to Armstrong, will be revamped later this summer. Once completed, hopefully by the fall, over 300 lessons and 10 years’ worth of recipes will be searchable and filterable.
According to Armstrong, the website isn’t the only thing changing this fall. “Sadly, Ava is going to be stepping down from the preschool educator role, and we are going to be looking to replace her,” Armstrong said. “She has been such an amazing asset to the team, but obviously her own kids are so important, and she has to grow them.”
Castro has a 20-month-old daughter at home whom she has already been in the garden with, and is expecting another. Castro will miss working for IGS: “It is such a fun job, and I’m sad to leave it, but I am hopeful to find someone who loves it as much as I do, because if you love gardening and you love kids, it is really the perfect job.”
Visit islandgrownschools.org to learn more about Island Grown Schools and its programs.