Harvest Time in Schools Enriches Student Experience

by Viktoriya Syrov

On a cloudy Saturday morning in April, seven students and five volunteers were hard at work in the front yard of Automotive High School in Brooklyn. Wielding rakes and shovels instead of wrenches, the boys tilled soil, planted seeds, and assembled raised beds in preparation for the planting season.

“Where I’m from, I used to help my grandmother do this,” said Dexter Ambrose, a student, referring to the lettuce seeds he had planted perfectly. His involvement with the garden and cooking club at the school has made him reconsider the business tract he had chosen to study. Now, Ambrose is thinking about incorporating food into his career plans.

Students help build raised beds at Automotive

Automotive, a vocational high school in Williamsburg, is one of 10 schools to benefit from Harvest Time, a program run by Slow Food NYC, which provides schools with financial assistance to support good food education. Harvest Time is just one of the many programs emerging around the city that contributes funding for food education and the growth of school gardens.

What is Harvest Time?

The goal of Harvest Time is to teach children about good food and get them involved in the food process through the creation of school gardens, cooking and nutrition classes, student-operated farm stands and field trips. The program is funded through various events such as seminars and other fund raising activities organized by Slow Food NYC.

“We have a lot of different schools where we help out by having gardens right at the schools so the kids can learn how to garden, learn where their produce or their foods come from, and hopefully get them excited enough that they will actually eat the vegetables that they grow,” said Pamela Warren, a nutritionist and Slow Food NYC Leadership Committee member, at an information session in April 8.

In order to be eligible to receive financial support, schools must be located in “food deserts,” communities where there is limited access to fresh produce, and have above average free lunch participation. Currently, 10 schools from Brooklyn, Manhattan, and the Bronx receive Harvest Time funding, which pays for garden supplies: soil, seeds and tools, and cooking equipment, mobile kitchens, as well as produce for cooking and selling.

“The schools have had different programs, based on the teachers, the school administration, and the kids”, said Ed Yowell, member of the SFNYC Leadership Committee, co-chair of the SFNYC Harvest Time Program, and a Slow Food Regional Governor.

At the Children’s Storefront in East Harlem, Harvest Time is in its seventh year and has developed a strong, multi-faceted program. There is a new edible garden supplementing cooking classes that teach children about food preparation and eating healthfully. Students also run a seasonal, weekly farm stand for the school community and neighborhood, selling produce purchased from farmers at a nearby Greenmarket. At the farm stand, children develop math and interpersonal skills, raising their self-esteem while learning about local and seasonal produce, said Yowell.

“They (SFNYC) have a lot of faith in the schools that they go into to say ‘Yeah you’re going to do a school garden, you’re not going to use this money for something else, but we trust you to figure out what kind of school garden is going to work for you, and what kind of kitchen is going to work for you,’ and so it looks different in every school and I think that’s a huge strength,” said Susan Weseen, a librarian at P.S. 295 in Sunset Park, Brooklyn whose school has been adopted by Slow Food this year.

“It’s kind of dawning on me with each unfolding how nice the idea is ― having that flexibility, trusting the schools to come up with a program that’s going to work for them. There’s a lot of times where places that want to help schools think that you’ve got to come up with a formula and it’s going to work in every school. I think that that’s actually misguided in a lot of cases because every school is so different,” she said.

The schools choose the way in which they utilize the program. At P.S.295, Harvest Time funding is being used to create raised beds in the school courtyard and buy mobile kitchens with equipment so that children can learn about the process from the ground up. Some schools integrate food education into their curriculum while others only have time for the program as an extracurricular activity, and in others, children learn about food during an advisory period, according to Yowell.

Jenny and students dig up a tree in Auto Garden

“I tried to have an after-school program but I didn’t really have the time to do it and it’s really hard to get kids to stay after school,” said Jenny Kessler, a teacher at Automotive where the garden is in its third year.

Kessler teaches an English class called “Food, Land and You,” in which students learn about food production while experiencing hands-on planting activities in the garden along with field trips to farms and butcher shops, where they learn how food is made. Although the school has a predominantly male student body, 95 percent male according to education.com, her class has been growing in popularity.

“The class is making me more aware of what I eat,” said Marquell Singleton, a student at Automotive.

Teachers say a shortage of time in the school day and lack of student availability during the summer, the prime harvesting season, are some of the major difficulties they face with school gardens. There are also challenges with incorporating garden time into their schedules as they attempt to adhere to a curriculum centered on test prep for city-wide and regents’ exams.

What is Slow Food?

Slow Food began as an international movement in Italy in 1989, as a reaction by the community to changing lifestyles and fast food culture. The organization has since grown to have chapters in 132 countries and over 100,000 members worldwide. The New York chapter is one of the largest local chapters, with over 1,300 dues-paying members.

“One of the things that Slow Food is, is local. And we support local not only because of food safety, but also because it means supporting a local economy and family-run farms with families of workers rather than corporations,” said Carol Dacey-Charles, a leader and volunteer coordinator for SFNYC at the volunteer information session on April 8. Over 50 volunteers attended the talk to learn how they could become involved with the organization.

The non-profit organization works to promote a good, clean, and fair food system through education, advocacy, and activism. During Slow U seminars, they hold talks and tastings centered on eating and drinking to educate members about sustainable food. They also promote food producers, markets, and restaurants that support sustainable and locally sourced food production through their Snail of Approval program.

This summer SFNYC will begin a new “Neighborhood Farms” program. They have adopted three garden sites around the city in neighborhoods targeted as food deserts. Children from the community will work on the farms and learn about planting and growing fruit and vegetables, with the goal of providing the community with more access to fresh produce.

“I’d like to show support and give my time to something that needs that support,” said Caroline English, a volunteer at the Food Bank, who came to the information session to learn more about Harvest Time.