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

Eat Your Homework

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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.”

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