“What is the input and output of the greenhouse?” “What role do you play in this food production chain?” These were some of the questions asked by Buffalo public and charter school students last night as we gathered in Tapestry’s greenhouse for a discussion with Justin Royer, the school’s Americorp volunteer.
Justin has a degree in sustainable agriculture and has been an incredible resource for the school. He and the students have acted as producers by planting seeds, harvesters by picking plants and vegetables when they are ripe, distributors when they walk the foods to the cafeteria for the school chef to use in recipes, and consumers when they eat the fruits of their labor. Although there are raised beds on the school grounds, a lot of the growing happens in the greenhouse which is considered a “cold frame”. This type of greenhouse, with clear panels that admit sunlight throughout the year, is often used in cold weather climates to prolong the growing season.
Last night we discussed the challenges that the school has faced in the development of a greenhouse and teaching garden and there were many. Lack of resources to get all of the necessary equipment such as fans, lighting, trays and plants was an initial hurdle. The solution? Searching for grant money and developing relationships with community organizations that are involved in gardening and agriculture sustainability. In Buffalo we are lucky to have two such organizations: Massachusetts Avenue Project (MAP), http://www.mass-ave.org, and Grass Roots Gardens of Buffalo, http://www.grassrootsgardens.org. These organizations have helped Buffalo public and charter schools with gardens, grant money and farm to school initiatives.
Additional challenges included weather, the unexpected warm temperatures of Buffalo’s 70 degree winter, difficulty finding helpers to take care of the plants during holidays the summer months, and difficulty fitting new curriculum surrounding food sustainability into already packed school days.
Although there are hurdles in establishing a sustainable agricultural environment in a school community, the benefits are far greater. When students come together to understand the cycle, plant seeds, watch things grow, harvest and consume, they learn valuable lessons about working together for a common outcome that has an impact on them, the community and the environment. When you add to this the incredible stewardship of a volunteer like Justin, you have that much more of a chance for success!
We laid the groundwork for an amazing playground for the kids of Tapestry Charter School and the surrounding community a few years ago. It was a ton of work but one of the most rewarding projects I’ve ever been involved with. From the moment it was built you could always expect a regularly cacophony of shrieks and laughter as the kids navigated and explored their incredible “play and learn” space, the first they had ever had in the Tapestry community.
When I planned the playground I also envisioned a green learning structure, a free standing outdoor classroom for the students to use to learn about weather, sustainability, science, even art with paintable surfaces and an outdoor stage floor for performances. Then I took it even further and won a grant to be used for a greenhouse. What did we end up with? A green learning structure that was underutilized, a green roof that was planted and regularly died and a greenhouse that took time, energy, additional money and commitment to get off the ground. Nothing happened over night, but, after things fell into place, perseverance, a word that is such a strong part of Tapestry’s message, fell into place.
One parent could not make this project work. You have to build a network and that has happened at Tapestry through a strong Americorp volunteer base. This year we’ve had a volunteer who is particularly committed to wellness initiatives and sustainability and that is a big part of the reason this wonderful outdoor learning space has been further developed.
There will always be reasons for not pushing a new learning experience forward but in these days of Common Core and tired and stressed out students and teachers, shouldn’t we take a moment or two to reexamine current learning and curriculum development structures and think of ways to invigorate and engage students on a new level? Tapestry is doing that and it’s something to pay attention to.
I’ve attended a few workshops where we’ve been asked to imagine our ideal cafeteria of the future and then collaborate to create a visual of what it might look like. They always share so many things in common: an abundance of fresh foods, farmers making deliveries to the school, children picking produce from their own school gardens, and color. Lots and lots of color in the varieties of foods to the brightly painted walls and chairs. Many of these cafeterias show children interacting with the food staff, wearing chef’s hats and acting as “Chef of the Week” with their newly created recipes. Funny how none of these depictions show a meek line of unsatisfied students slogging through what looks like a line at a prison to receive their tray of processed, prepackaged unidentifiable slop. Surprisingly they also never include an overbearing lunchroom monitor towering over the kids as they sit in silence as punishment for being too loud. Any of that sound remotely familiar to you?
Yesterday I came across this amazing project that was created by the innovative think tank, Ideo. They were approached by the San Francisco Unified School District to come up with a plan to really shake up their food system and fix a service that was underutilized and in debt. Their proposal follows. It’s all about thinking outside the box.