Planting Educational Seeds in Red Hook | Development | Hudson Valley | Chronogram Magazine
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Planting Educational Seeds in Red Hook 

Eat Your Homework

Garden teacher Christine Kurlander with a group of fourth grade students. - DOUG BAZ
  • Doug Baz
  • Garden teacher Christine Kurlander with a group of fourth grade students.


It’s every mother’s worst nightmare. Karine Duteil’s son, Jules, was coming home sick each day from school. She thought it might be food-related, and she realized she didn’t know what Jules was actually eating during the day. So she set to find out. What she learned surprised her. Even though his school, Phoenicia Elementary, is one of only a few around with a full kitchen, the lunches consisted of processed, reheated food, and Jules was being exposed to junk food while there. And, though surrounded by farms, the food wasn’t coming from them. “I never questioned it,” Duteil says.

Duteil is an ex-pat from France, where nutrition is part of the curriculum. In fact, in 2001, France upped the ante with the implementation of the French National Nutrition and Health Program. “Because childhood weight is often predictive of adult weight, some additional actions were taken specifically to target French youth,” the Ministry of Health stated. Things like making recommendations about food safety, banning vending machines, passing laws to provide a framework for food advertising, as well as free weekly fruit distribution in some schools. Healthy eating at school was something Duteil took for granted, and it was a jump for her to see that things were different in the U.S.

Duteil started packing Jules a lunch each day, and his nausea disappeared. But she thought, “If I do it for my son, I should do it for the other kids.” So, armed with a menu from one of the poorest public schools in Paris, Duteil went to the Phoenicia Wellness Committee and pointed out the striking differences. The problem was budget. The school was going for the cheap options. Which isn’t a surprise, as most school cafeterias are actually running at a loss. That’s one reason why they often supplement their service with “competitive food” sales – mostly chips, candy and cookies.

But Duteil also learned that there was a plot behind Phoenicia Elementary where someone had previously started to build a garden. It was a project meant to memorialize the classmate of a boy scout, but it hadn’t gotten past the beginning stages. It seemed like the perfect thing for Duteil, a landscape architect, to take on. She hoped it might resolve some of the disconnect between nature and food that the kids were experiencing. “Being a mother, everything gets mixed up,” Duteil smiles. “You bring your professional skills to your child’s education.”

Duteil got permission from the principal and then pulled in Mary Jane Lautenbach from the PTA to help. “Her vision was to get the kids involved,” Lautenbach says, “to see where the food comes from, get their hands dirty, get it into the classroom.” Duteil drafted a blueprint of the garden area, and, explaining its birds’ eye view, told groups of students to create a garden design. “I wanted them to feel that everything was possible,” Duteil says. What came back was ingenious: a museum with a shop; a garden within a garden. Within a week or so, Duteil pulled together a single design. “It was really challenging for me,” she says. “I wanted it to be a collaboration.”

“The biggest common denominator in the designs was water,” Lautenbach says. But a body of water poses a hazard at a school. So instead of the river the kids envisioned, Duteil designed a meandering plot that would bisect the garden, be planted with blue flowers, and have a bridge cross it. “After I presented the design to the kids,” Duteil says, “they were all very excited. They felt like it was theirs.”

At that point, Duteil found herself moving back to New York City, and it was up to Lautenbach to take charge of the local, anonymous donation and build the garden. Getting the teachers on board proved the next challenge. “The teachers had a sour taste because they had gotten it started before, and then it didn’t go,” Lautenbach says. The community, on the other hand, was gung ho. Local artisan, Cornelius McGillicuddy, built a gate, a stage, a vegetable stand and tables. A teacher’s father made benches. Cornell Cooperative Extension hosted a program to show how the garden could be incorporated into the curriculum, which was attended by three or four teachers and some community members. The principal was encouraging. Each teacher was given a classroom plot and license to do with it as they pleased.

Once the garden was in, Lautenbach organized various activities like crafts and tastings to bring people in. “The thing that caught on,” Lautenbach says, “was having a chef in the garden.” That first year it was Noah Sheetz, the Governor’s chef, who was charged with doing outreach. There wasn’t much growing yet, so they placed donated vegetables all around the garden and did an Easter egg hunt with the kids. Duteil was there and describes it this way: “Some kids never eat vegetables, but you’re with your friends; you’re outside; there’s this big, tall guy cooking. Hey, vegetables are cool.” Lautenbach adds, “Everything was made simply with salt and oil, even daikon radish, and the kids were tasting everything.”

With Lautenbach’s son now graduated, the garden continues with fresh organizers, and the guest chef tradition continues. And in New York, with her landscape design business, KaN, now about three years old, Duteil is shopping a proposal called Class Farm, which aims to build hydroponic garden classrooms. They require less water, don’t use soil, so soil fertility isn’t a factor, and there’s the ability to grow more plants in a smaller space, which is great for urban schools. Plus, one of the big problems with school gardens is that the bulk of the work needs to be done in the summer. But with KaN’s proposal, school gardens can determine the growing season or grow year-round. Given its advantages, hydroponics just might be the wave of the future for school gardens.

II. The National School Lunch Program feeds 32 million children every year, and any district that receives reimbursement for their lunch program is required to set up committees and policies on nutrition and physical activities. But as Nicci Cagan, the Wellness/Garden Committee Chair for the Marbletown PTA explains, “Most schools’ Wellness Committees meet once and then forget about it.”

Cagan’s volunteerism helped to implement school gardens in each of her district’s elementary schools and the middle school. And it’s created somewhat of a food expert in her. “You get a cycle of about four years with a parent in a school,” Cagan says. “That’s why it’s really important that districts own the farm-to-school initiatives. Because then parents can plug in and support, but it has a life beyond them.” And it’s the Wellness Committee that gives parents a voice. For instance, when Marbletown lost their food services director, Cagan, for the Wellness Committee, requested the replacement be farm-to-school focused. That opened the applicant pool beyond those who passed the civil service test, and they were inundated with promising applicants. “Wellness covers a lot of areas, but for changing your children’s food and creating better choices, the Wellness Committee is the way to be effective.”

The one to watch, Cagan feels, is Julie Holbrook, food services director for Keene Central and Schroon Lake Central in the Adirondacks. Both schools are tiny compared to most with 169 and 229 students in K-12, respectively. “That’s a different curve when it comes to procurement possibilities, I know,” Holbrook exclaims. But it’s the size that allows Holbrook to get creative with the food service she can provide. Both schools have a CSA share for their eggs, vegetables and some fruit. They also get grass fed beef from a local farmer. The schools have very good budgets, and Holbrook has learned how to make the most of them. They make their own bread and don’t use portion cups, which are time-consuming to fill and wasteful, instead optioning for portion scoops, which workers monitor. “We cook completely from scratch,” she says, “Then you can save your leftovers, unlike with processed foods.”

Holbrook’s cafeterias are probably what parents hope for. They don’t serve any food with high fructose corn syrup, their a la cartes don’t contain additives, and they haven’t served flavored milk in so long that most students don’t even remember it. But while Holbrook notes that the USDA is strongly encouraging of using local foods, she knows that most schools don’t have the equipment to cook, nor the labor hours to do so, and that’s not what the cafeteria workers were hired for. “Even I’m hassled about my hours,” she says. “Schools are in dire straits financially.” There are grants to help schools with high free- and reduced-lunch populations, but you need someone who can put a plan into action and an administration who will allow that. “Cooking from scratch is so much cheaper,” Holbrook remarks, “but not on paper.”

It’s this type of ingenuity that Sarah Wu advocates. In her book, Fed Up With Lunch, Wu, a teacher in Chicago, writes about the year she spent eating at her school’s cafeteria. She learned a lot that year, including the loopholes in nutritional requirements. For instance, fries count as a serving of vegetables and can be offered daily, despite the caloric, sodium and fat content. In fact, most of the foods served in schools don’t come with nutritional labeling or ingredient lists. With all the fillers and non-food ingredients it takes to make processed foods, she wasn’t surprised about the lethargy and lack of focus she saw in her students after lunch. She blames the mostly twenty minute lunch periods, including line time. She witnessed kids scarfing down the tastiest parts of their lunch (usually chocolate milk, the juice in the fruit cup and whatever was fried) and tossing the rest. “…In the short times kids have to eat, they aren’t going to have time to eat a balanced meal, even if that’s what’s being offered,” she writes. But the problem is that for a lot of kids, the school lunch is their best shot at getting good nutrition in a day, particularly for low income families who live where access to fresh food is limited and processed food is a way of life. For a nation fighting an obesity epidemic, as well as a reputation for poor academics, that’s pretty serious. How can kids concentrate if they’re not adequately nourished, she asks? Cafeterias, Wu feels, should be an extension of the curriculum, where kids learn about nutrition and real food. And that’s where the garden classrooms come in.

The Harvest Hudson Valley team with Alice Waters at the Mill Road Garden Classroom. - DOUG BAZ
  • Doug Baz
  • The Harvest Hudson Valley team with Alice Waters at the Mill Road Garden Classroom.

III. “It would be wonderful to get back to a cooking cafeteria and use the amazing food that we have in the Hudson Valley to make the school meal more appetizing and healthy,” Tricia Paffendorf posits. She talks about “powerful” food, fresh and locally sourced, and as a garden-designer-turned-mom, she knows how it can be achieved.

It starts with a quarter-acre plot of Mill Road Elementary School’s rolling field of a playground, at the edge of the schoolyard where it kisses Migliorelli Farms. That’s where Paffendorf and co-founder Tricia Reed, along with committed friends and a shared vision, started the garden committee. And from there, the garden classroom program just seemed to fall into place. They first assembled ideas and logistics, then engaged four teachers from Mill Road Elementary to commit to using the garden classroom, got permission from the surprisingly supportive administration and broke ground in spring 2011. “Within two growing seasons, we’d accumulated the interest of the entire school,” Paffendorf says. “It was quick for the teachers to find a reason to use it.” A key element was Lydia Cordier, a now-retired teacher. She was essential in building the school’s confidence in the program, encouraging teachers to use the garden classroom, as well as an experienced gardener. “She was committed to making sure the garden succeeded,” Paffendorf says.

Another important component of its success is that the garden planners had full-fledged support from Clara Wittek, the food services director. For Wittek, the garden enhanced the goals that she and the district already had. “Even before we put the garden in, the cafeteria’s initiative was to expose students to new, healthy foods,” Wittek says. For instance, when they couldn’t get the kids to eat legumes, they put corn in a black bean salad. They piloted a soup, salad, and breadstick bar. And the addition of the garden committee simply multiplied those efforts.

Three years later, the cafeteria distributes the garden’s produce as free samples on the serving line, and they augment meals with the fresh herbs grown. “I don’t know if we’ll ever get to the size where we can harvest enough vegetables from our own garden to give to students for lunch,” Wittek says, “but we are taking that harvest and incorporating it into our salad bar, which the garden committee was instrumental in getting put in.” And it was a group effort for Thanksgiving dinner. The garden committee made the appetizers - a fresh basil pesto on baguette. “I feel nutrition is part of my responsibility - serving food and educating them. That’s what a school district is supposed to do.” And Wittek knows all about it, explaining that very often children won’t try something simply because it’s unfamiliar. “If a food is sampled at least ten times, the taste buds make the recognition in the brain that it’s familiar,” she says. “And they start to incorporate it into their diet.” What Wittek has grown to expect with the tastings is that if she can convince one or two kids to try it, more will come the next time.

At the core of Wittek’s support for the school garden program is an openness of mind. “A lot of different things could easily impact the cafeteria,” Wittek says. There’s additional food prep involved in serving fresh vegetables. For Wittek, it’s a matter of grounding herself to the daily struggles of pinching pennies and learning the do’s and don’t’s of federal and state regulations. “Once you’ve accomplished that, you have the opportunity to explore and see what else you could possibly do to make a child’s life better.”

Marla Walker agrees. She’s the third piece that makes Mill Road’s garden so successful – the organizational piece. Walker is the Project Director for Harvest Hudson Valley, the all-volunteer organization that manages Red Hook district’s farm-to-school initiatives. Starting with an Indiegogo campaign, an international crowd-funding website, Harvest Hudson Valley was able to raise $14,000 in one month through donations of $10-$500 increments. The Red Hook Education Foundation, a parent-run non-profit, is the org you write your check to. They don’t do the work of the project, but as the fiscal sponsor, they distribute the funds to Harvest Hudson Valley, which doesn’t have non-profit status.

Walker, along with Wittek, wrote the grant that won the district two salad bars during the 2012-13 school year and made it possible to put salad bars in all of the district schools. “This was major as far as reaching the Harvest program beyond just the garden,” Walker says. Other grants include $2,000 from Whole Foods, the Annie’s Garden Grant, generous donations from Migliorelli Farms, and a donation of six apple tree saplings from Montgomery Place Orchard in celebration of Arbor Day. Not to mention all the community and parent volunteering that the garden classroom has received over the years.

Last fall, a garden volunteer organized a wine and food event that they hoped would raise enough for a garden for the middle and high schools (which have adjacent campuses) to share. “We determined that it would cost $8,000 to break ground, build infrastructure, and start planting,” Walker says. “We raised it that night.” Paffendorf says the community support for the garden programs are a testament to the school district. “The community was ready for this.”

“A lot of kids have experience through family, farm stands, but not in an educational way,” Walker says. “That was the impetus.” And it’s Christine Kurlander’s task to work with other garden teachers like Sarah James and Kallie Weinkle to develop lessons and curriculum across grades K-5 for Mill Road’s garden classroom. “The teachers are so stretched,” Kurlander says. “Without an outside group of volunteers pushing the project forward, it would not have gotten to this point.” Garden teachers are not a district-approved position, but the district pays them as substitute teachers. And Harvest Hudson Valley, using raised funds, pays them for the summer maintenance of the garden. “I was a volunteer before I was paid,” Kurlander says. “It’s an acknowledgement of my work. The project is valued by the district.”

Garden teachers develop activities that connect the classroom curriculum with garden tasks to give the kids a chance to get their hands dirty with learning. Last fall, they did a math project, estimating, measuring and weighing the pumpkins they were growing. There was a language arts lesson where classes compared and contrasted different kinds of squash, using observation to inform their writing. “Often the way we start off our lessons is by doing a kind of meditation, sitting quietly and noticing the sounds around them,” Kurlander says, “helping them to be in the moment and connect with nature.”

Plus, it gets kids eating new, healthy foods. One project at Mill Road Elementary involved putting together the dry ingredients of a salad dressing using the garden’s growing herbs. The kids brought them home in a Ziploc bag and added oil. “We got really awesome feedback on that,” Kurlander says. “Kids who had never tried salad before wanted to add the dressing.”

Alice Waters in the Mill Road Garden Classroom. - DOUG BAZ
  • Doug Baz
  • Alice Waters in the Mill Road Garden Classroom.

IV. The school garden movement, born of practicality in 1891, flourished during both World Wars. During WWII the Food for Freedom campaign successfully left us with what we now call Victory Gardens, and it was a time when Americans ate more fresh fruits and vegetables than any other before or since. There was a resurgence in gardening during the environmental movement of the 1960s. But the recent trend, since the 1990s, can be credited to an interest in progressive education.

Caitlin Flanagan, writing for The Atlantic, makes the contentious argument that school gardens detract from the more important learning that goes on during book work and that, particularly for minority populations and the children of immigrants, it’s a belittlement of the American dream, where students are taught to work the fields rather than achieve academic success. “The suicidal dietary choices of so many poor people are the result of a problem, not the problem itself,” she writes. “The solution lies in an education that will propel students into a higher economic class, where they will live better and therefore eat better.”

But for the kids at Mill Road Elementary, the proof is in the perennials. “There’s more enthusiasm and positive energy behind what they’re doing,” Kurlander says, “so the curriculum connections we make are more real.” For example, when the kids at Mill Road learn Native American legends in fourth grade, they also do a planting of the Three Sisters (corn, beans and squash). When they come back in the fall for fifth grade, they see the way the plants grow together. The connection with the legends is stronger, Kurlander notes.

All the organizers involved with Mill Road’s garden refer to Paffendorf’s muse, the mother of the farm-to-school movement, Alice Waters, a California chef who pioneered a garden classroom at Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School in Berkeley, California, seventeen years ago. As Waters told Jamie Rose for the New York Times, “[Kids are] learning a very troubling set of values at the same time that they’re getting their [fast food] hamburger or eating in the car. They’re learning that food should be fast, cheap and easy; it should be available 24 hours a day; and that resources are infinite. It’s a very narrow view that we have of the most important activity of our lives.”

“With the health crisis in our country, which is targeting our children, learning to think about what you’re eating and care about your own health are solutions,” Paffendorf says, “Caring for the bigger picture in life probably starts there. You’re more likely to care for your friends, community and the greater environment, too.”

It’s Waters’ Edible Schoolyard Academy that Paffendorf, Wittek, Walker and Kurlander attended through grants. They hope to send more teachers there this June. Wittek, whose airfare and hotel were paid by a private benefactor, says, “Every waking moment of your day is jam packed full, but you walk away so energized.” With classes like food prep, growing hybrid fruit, and curriculum integration, the Academy offers a multitude of inspiration for established projects with a focus on sustainability. And they’re implementing a lot of that learning here in Red Hook. For instance, there’s a ramada at Mill Road Elementary. It’s the centerpiece of the garden, offering shade to outdoor classes and plantings to nibble, and Mill Road’s is dedicated to Lydia Cordier.

In terms of Red Hook’s middle and high schools, they’re already involved with Mill Road’s garden. A woodworking class at the high school designed and built a supply shed, installed next to the garden. The math classes are doing lessons where the middle and high school garden is staked out. “With the elementary school,” Kurlander says, “Tricia brought the idea of the garden. But the teachers at the middle and high school came to us.” They have big plans for what they’ll do with it. Educators and students from the middle and high schools will be meeting with the Harvest Hudson Valley team to design and implement the new garden. They’re taking its implementation slowly, allowing for a long planning stage. Paffendorf notes that, as with the garden at Mill Road Elementary, getting everything in place for ground breaking also requires equal amounts of relationship-building and garnering support. And she’s confident that the process will lay down infrastructure for a sustainable future. Paffendorf remarks, “It’ll be wonderful to carry this from elementary to middle and high school in the district, so students will always have that connection.”

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