This year, Island Grown Schools (IGS) celebrates its 15th anniversary. In its decade and a half, IGS has built school gardens, taken students to visit Island farms, brought local food into school cafeterias, and built connections between the classroom, farms, kitchen, and the food we eat. The program reaches nearly every school-aged child on the Vineyard, from preschoolers who find worms in the dirt to elementary school students who work in their school gardens and glean at local farms, to high school students entering careers in food and agriculture. IGS’s activities teach more than just how to grow a backyard garden, integrating with the whole school curriculum.
In 2007, Noli Taylor received a Vineyard Vision fellowship to start a farm-to-school program, with the idea that if we want to make big changes in our local food system, we should start with our youngest Islanders. IGS got its start at a meeting on a stormy night that December. The initial group, mostly volunteer, grew and evolved, and IGS now has a staff of seven, led by education director Emily Armstrong. It’s part of a national farm-to-school movement that encompasses four components: gardens at schools, local food in school meals, curriculum connections, and farm field trips. Armstrong has been at Island Grown Initiative (the parent organization of IGS) for eleven years. “We started out mostly volunteer based, and we’ve had some incredible people work with us over the years,” she says. “The growth was really based around the need that we saw from the schools, through collaborations with different members of the school community.”
The leaders of IGS learned that it wasn’t realistic to have a garden that was run entirely by the teachers, which they’d first envisioned, because teachers were simply too busy. The work that IGS staff does is vital, and is done in collaboration with the teachers at each school. “In the younger grades, we focus on that foundation: What is a seed? How does a seed grow?” Armstrong says. “You can access that from art, from science, and from math. When we move into middle school, we get into the history of food, where foods come from, different cultural significances of food. That’s a time where we can get into more of the really specific science of how plants grow.” In high school there are internships at IGI, a garden club, and more. Along the way, the lesson plans fit into state curriculum frameworks to help schools reach their educational goals.
Pia Gundersen took over the preschool program just this fall, but her history with IGS goes back much further. “I was teaching at Grace Preschool and Debbie [Jernegan, then director of Grace Preschool] and I went to that informational meeting where they were talking about this new program that was starting,” Gundersen says. “We really wanted to be part of it.” She has been a preschool teacher for over a decade, and the move into IGS built on her experience there as she works with many Island preschools. She loves sharing the wonder of nature with children, experiencing their fascination with worms or rolly pollies, and the sense of magic that comes with that.
Sam Greene is the IGS coordinator for the Tisbury School and the Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School. She reaches students at every age from kindergarten through high school. “There’s more to it than ‘here’s a garden, let’s learn how to plant things,’” she says. Right now, she’s working with a Spanish teacher on some lesson plans for a seventh grade class who are learning about foods from Mexico, and also about Cesar Chaves, Dolores Huerta, and farm workers’ struggle for better pay and safer working conditions. Greene started working with IGS when she was a full-time teacher at the Charter School. “I took advantage of the regular curriculum and fit in some education about food history,” she says. “I really love connecting with social studies teachers and talking about how foods move with people and through time. Helping kids understand where food comes from is really important to me. Putting their hands in the soil can be a really life-changing moment for them.”
“There are students graduating who have worked with us in the past 15 years who are really interested in the food system and how it works, and in questions of food equity,” says Armstrong. Astrid Tilton was one of Greene’s students at the Charter School, and helped to write a state-wide Farm to School bill that turned October into farm-to-school month. Because of that bill, there is now money in the state budget for districts that want to implement farm-to-school programs. Now, Tilton manages IGI’s gleaning program, and brings food from our local farms to school cafeterias. “It’s full circle,” Armstrong says. “She harvests food with students who come to the farm and it goes back to the schools and out to the rest of the Island through the food equity network.”
This Friday, Island Grown Schools will gather to celebrate their 15-year milestone anniversary. If you would like to share memories or stories of IGS, email Emily Armstrong (firstname.lastname@example.org). Volunteers are always welcome for IGI’s food pantry and gleaning programs (see https://www.igimv.org/volunteer).