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Bronx schoolyard garden leads tween locavore movement


By JOEL MEARES

Teacher Kelly McLane picking herbs in the garden at Bronx Green Middle School. (Photo: Joel Meares)

Teacher Kelly McLane picking herbs in the garden at Bronx Green Middle School. (Photo: Joel Meares)

Five years ago, school principal Emily Becker and teacher Kelly McLane visited the Edible Schoolyard, Alice Waters’ one-acre school garden and outdoor kitchen at Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School in Berkeley, Calif.

The two foodies, who met while teaching at West Side Collaborative Middle School in Manhattan, were impressed by what they saw. Seventh- and eighth-graders churning soil, pruning branches, collecting eggs from a lively chicken coop and cooking meals in an outdoor wood-fired oven. Becker says, “It was a marriage of my two passions: teaching and letting kids know how to eat healthy and where food comes from.”

The pair were so impressed that in 2006 they replanted Waters’ idea in the Bronx — creating an urban edible schoolyard, Bronx Green Middle School,  just blocks from a McDonald’s, Popeye’s, White Castle and Dunkin’ Donuts in the Allerton neighborhood. Along with math, social studies and ELA, the public school’s sixth- to eighth-graders take class in an outside garden classroom similar to Waters’ — a cluster of tomato plants, herbs and raised flowerbeds at the rear of the school.

Four years after opening, Bronx Green is at capacity. Every school day, 450 green-thumbed tweens work the soil and chew over buzzwords like “permaculture” and “sustainability” in class.

“Interest in school gardening is growing across the board in New York,” says Leslie Boden, a food consultant who this year released a free school gardening resource guide through GreenThumb, the Department of Parks and Recreation’s community garden development arm. According to GreenThumb, there are now at least 100 outdoor school gardens, mostly in Brooklyn, in the city’s 1,600 schools. Thirty of them have registered since the beginning of the year.

In New York City, where the Department of Planning says three-quarters of a million people live in areas with little access to fresh produce, that growth is critical. “Children growing up in neighborhoods without access to fresh food haven’t had exposure to fresh fruit and vegetables, the very sustenance of life,” says Boden.

But it’s not easy being green. While GreenThumb and other organizations like it offer support — arranging workshops, supplying soil and tools and, now, guides — Boden says there is still no single, centralized, source of support for people in schools who are doing gardening with students. “It depends largely on there being a champion or principal at the school, support groups and fundraising for it to happen.”

Enter Becker, McLane and their ilk. The pair wasted no time championing a school that addressed these problems when they returned from Berkeley. Becker enrolled in the city’s yearlong Aspiring Principal’s Program and the pair began meeting weekly to discuss everything about the dream school they were planning: From the curriculum to how to elect the PTA president and whether the children would wear uniforms.

Months before launching IS 326 in the fall of 2006, they were at the school from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., seven days a week, ordering books, cleaning classrooms and drawing up schedules for staff. GreenThumb and Bronx Green-Up, at the New York Botanical Garden, supplied much of the garden tools and plants.

“Our school is all about making wise choices,” says Becker, 35 and every the inch the principal with her hair tied back, sensible slacks and button-up blouse. “It’s easy to default to the choices that are right in front of you. The corner store with the chips, the cheaper fast foods.”

McLane, 30, who wears her dark hair long and loose on either side of an unfading smile, and has a tattoo of a spider crawling across the top of her chest, says she’s loved food since growing tomatoes and raspberries in her parents’ home in Matawan, N.J. She helped Becker design the garden-centered syllabus that won them funding and an administrator’s license from the Department of Education.

In the syllabus, sixth graders learn to use gardening tools, transplant perennials, test soils and make worm-composting bins in a special course called Field Studies. The garden permeates the curriculum even when the children are inside. For ELA, sixth graders read assigned books such as “SeedFolks” and “Chew on This.” According to McLane, the latter is like filmmaker Morgan Spurlock’s McDonald’s exposé, “Supersize Me.” “We’re pretty intense here,” she laughs.

The first year culminates with a garden design class over winter. The students learn about perfect path width and which plants to place on slopes, to catch flowing water. Then, in pairs, they draw up new designs for the garden, which are exhibited to the parents in a Garden Design Exhibition. Next year, the exhibit will be April 16.

Each student votes, in a secret ballot, for a garden design, and the school transforms the existing garden into the winning design. The lavender, strawberries and tomatoes in the garden today come courtesy of last school year’s winner, Semina Radoncic, 13, and her design, “The Maze to Find Love.”

Bronx Green Middle School students Marco Herrera, 12, Edgar Pineda, 12, and Kimberly Dang, 12, reading a book about gardening. (Photo: Joel Meares

Bronx Green Middle School students Marco Herrera, 12, Edgar Pineda, 12, and Kimberly Dang, 12, reading a book about gardening. (Photo: Joel Meares)

The children at Bronx Green savor the program. Radoncic says she came because of the garden and loves using the extendable “telescope rake” to scratch lines into the earth. Marco Herrera, a slight 12-year-old who lives two blocks from the school, says he enjoys “learning about the nutrition inside the vegetables.” In a cafeteria they share with students from two other schools in the MS 135 building on Wallace Street, the Bronx Green children mostly chose pears over nachos on at least one day.

Armella Ujka, 11, says she likes to eat the fruit from the garden. Students take produce home or eat it at school during spring as part of the city’s new Garden to School Café initiative, where student-grown food is prepared for the cafeteria and kids are given workshops in food preparation. “With the ones from the store,” Ujka says, “you don’t know if they put chemicals in them.” Ujka, now in grade seven, became quite attached to the Bronx Green garden in her first year. “I used to pull out the weeds. But once, I got to this flower that smelt good, the lemon balm. We had to get ride of it and I felt bad for it because it smelt so good.”

The 30 teachers and 15 support staff have been tougher customers. McLane and Becker say some teachers have struggled with controlling classes outdoors and with the heavily specialized curriculum. Some teachers have quit. “We’re constantly changing, we’re figuring things out,” says McLane. “If you don’t have that entrepreneurial spirit it can be really tough for you.” When they do lose staff, Becker and McLane often don’t know whether to advertise for licensed health educators or science teachers.

The shortage has unearthed problems with the seventh grade Field Studies class, which adapts the curriculum from the Columbia University’s Teachers College. “Our second-year Field Studies class has not quite worked,” admits Becker. “We have not been able to staff a strong person for the seventh grade.” The eighth grade has no Field Studies component, but Becker hopes to eventually create one with a final project included.

Still, she is proud of the school she and McLane have built. “I’m not a mother but it really has followed the path of a child,” she muses. “This year is exciting. We just graduated our starting class and we’re back to square one, with a full school and a lot of experience.”

She is about to lose some of that experience. McLane, who this year has been acting “Garden Coordinator,” leaves the school in October to travel the world, dirtying her hands in organic farms as far away as Australia and Japan. She says she is glad to see more schools picking up spades and snatching up GreenThumb’s new guide. She hopes some might dig as deeply she and her friend.

“People ask, ‘Don’t you like being the only school that’s different?’ Maybe it’s cool to be different for a while. But I really want every school to be like that.”

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