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School gardens give students the opportunity to develop a deeper understanding of the food that fuels their bodies and their community. (Photo credit: David Benthal)

In early April, a group of Mattituck High School students traded their textbooks for gardening tools as they prepared the school’s greenhouse for the growing season. With their sleeves rolled up and fingers in the dirt, they dug small holes into the soil of the garden beds, making room for the Cosmos Sensation mix flower seeds their environmental science teacher, Eric Frend, had instructed them to plant. As they tended to the garden, they weren’t just learning about agriculture — they were practicing it.

Donated by Carl Gabrielson in 2015, the school’s greenhouse is a hands-on learning center for Frend’s environmental science class as well as an after-school program called Future Farmers of America. There, students grow a variety of produce like tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, lettuce, and even flowers while experimenting with different farming techniques. The gardening initiatives at Mattituck High School are just a few of the ways schools across the North Fork are using school gardens to teach students about agriculture. In an area where agriculture runs deep, both economically and culturally, these gardens offer students the opportunity to develop a deeper understanding of the food that fuels their bodies and their community.

Photo credit: DAVID BENTHAL

According to Liz Casey-Searl, co-founder and co-director of the Peconic Community School in Aquebogue, “There’s so many benefits for young people to be learning about farming, whether it’s just understanding where their food comes from to understanding a really important economic area that keeps this area thriving.” Founded in 2012, PCS is a progressive, independent school that uses a place-based curriculum in which education is often hands-on and grounded in the context of Long Island’s East End.

“One of the things that we really believe in is having experiential education, so our kids will go out and visit farms and talk to farmers,” explained Casey-Searl. “A lot of the time, it’s either doing actual farm work in the field or talking with farmers about what they do and grow.” Students visit local farms like Sylvester Manor, an educational farm on Shelter Island where students can tour the grounds and learn the history of the island and the manor itself. PCS is also equipped with two school gardens, each of which have beds divided by age group. Each week, students have a designated day for gardening built into their schedule where they can learn important lessons in the field.

“[Our students are] driving along these North Fork roads and seeing the farm stands and seeing the fields…understanding all the hard work that goes into agriculture, the labor and the resources required to have fresh, beautiful food is such an important lesson,” she explained. “It builds character and a base of knowledge that’s so useful.”

Despite the abundance of farmland and fields across the North Fork, educators in the area have reported that some students lack experience with gardening, or are unaware of where their food comes from before stepping foot into their school’s garden. According to Casey-Searl, PCS saw an increase in the number of students arriving from New York City during the pandemic, and many of these students had their first experience of cultivating a garden at the Aquebogue-based school.

[Our students are] driving along these North Fork roads and seeing the farm stands and seeing the fields…understanding all the hard work that goes into agriculture, the labor and the resources required to have fresh, beautiful food is such an important lesson

Liz Casey-Searl

“It’s truly amazing that even children out this way may not have seen a tomato being grown — they just get it from the store,” said Melissa Wilcenski, a first-grade teaching assistant and volunteer for the Cutchogue East Elementary School’s after-school enrichment garden club.

With the help of students from Mattituck High School, the elementary school received new garden boxes this spring, where third and fourth graders in the after-school program and first-grade class will grow produce like peas, beans, potatoes, tomatoes, and sunflowers. “You don’t need a whole big garden to have something growing. It’s nice just bringing that awareness to families and showing them that they can do this,” she said. “We’ve even had some kids come back and say they put in a garden at their house or now their mom lets them do it in a planter.”

Once the garden’s veggies are fully grown, schools may encourage students to bring home fresh vegetables to their families, set up a mini farmer’s market, or eat it straight from the garden. By doing so, these schools motivate students to eat fresh and healthy foods, which numerous studies have shown are positively associated with a student’s well-being and educational outcomes.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, Southold Elementary School used to serve the produce grown in their school garden in the cafeteria. They would utilize fresh greens and freeze tomatoes to be used in sauce during the fall. “We try not to let anything go to waste,” said Debra Kimmelman, Southold Elementary’s garden coordinator and science teacher. In the past, Kimmelman has given surplus from the students’ garden to Center for Advocacy, Support and Transformation, an organization dedicated to serving low-income individuals and families across the North Fork. “School gardens can build community as well,” she explained. Getting involved, she says, makes “students feel good, because they know at some point, they’ve had a part in it.”

School gardens can also serve as an invaluable educational tool for teaching a wide range of subjects, bridging theoretical concepts with real-world experiences. Students can gain insights into subjects like math, science, and history by engaging in activities such as measuring the square footage of a garden or connecting crops in the garden to historical events like the Irish Potato Famine.

At Mattituck High School, in addition to running the greenhouse, Frend has turned his classroom into a hands-on learning lab where students can grow coral and exotic fish. “A lot of kids, I think, learn better that way,” explained Frend. Beyond feeding the animals, students also learn about the chemistry involved in maintaining the tank, including monitoring water salinity. His students even experiment with aquaponics — growing tomatoes inside a fish tank where the fish’s waste acts as a natural fertilizer.

Kaden Kahn, a ninth-grade student in Mr. Frend’s environmental science class and a member of the Future Farmers of America Club (FFA), commended the school’s garden initiatives. “I think that it’s important that people know how to garden,” said Khan, adding that it has become a hobby that he and his dad share. “My favorite part is getting out and working. Sitting around in the classroom for too long can be tiring, so I always enjoy getting some sun.”

Encouraging students’ interest in agriculture early in life can also guide them towards a career path in the field. Mattituck High School Senior Victoria Witczak recalls being introduced to gardening at a young age. Inspired by her neighbors at Sang Lee Farms, she started gardening on a 1,000-square-foot plot in fifth grade to donate vege- tables to CAST. Now a member of her school’s FFA, she credits the club as part of the inspiration for her future career goals. “I want to study civil engineering and environmental science when I’m in college,” explained Witczak. “The whole integration of FFA at the high school really helped me push to do that.”

With potential to positively impact students, it’s essential that school gardens are given the attention, staffing, and funding needed to thrive. While some schools have dedicated budgets for their gardens, others rely on grants or donations from generous community members.

Over the last ten years, Slow Food East End has been supporting school garden programs across the North and South Fork. “Slow Food’s mission is to reconnect children and their families with food and empower and inspire their local communities to eat well, so this really fits in well with the school garden model,” explained Maria Plitt, Slow Food’s Master Farmer. For over a decade, she managed Eastport Elementary’s garden — an impressive display of 20 beds, 15 dwarf apple trees, an indoor aquaponics system, and a large living wall. Selected as the 2017 NY State Agriculture in the Classroom Teacher of the Year, she now serves as a mentor to those interested in establishing or maintaining a school garden. “I’ve reached out to the superintendents on the East End to see what they might need, or how Slow Food might be of assistance,” she explained.

To assist schools with their gardening needs, Slow Food East End offers mini grants of up to $1,000, which can be used for purchasing supplies, such as new garden beds, tools, or an outdoor sink. The national chapter of the organization also offers two fully developed curricula that include lessons on healthy eating and sustainability.

“They’re an amazing organization that helps schools tremendously with both funding and education,” said Casey-Searl. “The grants have helped us get supplies in the past.”

“They’re more than willing to support local school gardens,” added Kimmelman, who often applies for the organization’s grants.

At Mattituck High School, Frend credits local farms like Sang Lee and Gabrielson’s Country Farm as being instrumental in their programs’ success. “We have a good support group locally and that helps us out,” said Frend. “That’s one of the other reasons why we started this.”

“It’s been a great experience having our students work with local farmers and be connected to that aspect of the community,” added Casey-Searl.

Looking to start a school garden on the East End of Long Island, but don’t know where to start? You can email slowfoodeastend@gmail. com to get in contact with Master Farmer Maria Plitt.