On June 4, 2022 a contingent of teachers, students, and community volunteers gathered at East Hampton’s Memorial School (serving students from pre-Kindergarten through third grade) to begin building the school’s CT Grown for CT Kids Grant-funded garden.
However, a garden doesn’t simply grow with one day of effort. A garden requires a team that will nurture its development with warmth and encouragement. It needs to be supported with deep-rooted belief in its necessity and uplifted by the excitement of school and community alike. Much like each student in every school, a garden deserves a solid foundation and a team that has its best interest in mind. For the Memorial School Garden, this group is called the Garden Dream Team, and it is made up of five deeply invested individuals.
Jen Bove, the School Food Director/Nutrition Service Director in East Hampton, leads the team and ties farms and gardens to the school through nutrition and culinary education. Jen is joined on the Garden Dream Team by a garden curriculum coordinator (a preschool teacher), two garden curriculum specialists (one being a Kindergarten-1st grade specialist, the other a 2nd grade-3rd grade specialist), and a district curriculum director. Jen knows “If [the garden] is going to work, everyone has to be invested in it and it has to involve everybody.”
The team’s goal was to build a garden that was directly connected to the school, and for it to be completely school and community based.The Garden Dream Team plans to engage East Hampton high school students, creating a garden ambassador program between the oldest
and youngest students of the district. East Hampton middle schoolers will also reap the benefits as they use the herbs grown to create delicious dishes in their cooking club. By connecting with East Hampton’s transitional school and learning center, the students will connect to the garden, gaining essential life skills training in an accessible and safe environment. Parks and recreation camps as well as after school programs are also invited to share in the abundance of the garden through various garden club opportunities.
Jen and the Garden Dream Team want the garden to be the biggest benefit to the students of Memorial School and children throughout the entire district of East Hampton, but Jen also hopes that the teachers will benefit as well as “[the garden] will give them a whole new avenue for exploration.” This exploration will be supported through a newly created garden curriculum position. The garden and nutrition curriculum will be developed during the fall 2022 semester, and the curriculum will roll out in Memorial School in the spring of 2023. Jen knows, for the garden to be successful, supported, and used repeatedly, activities and education need to be built directly into the school’s daily curriculum.
Of course, with big dreams and big benefits come big hurdles. Farm-to-school grants have been difficult to come by for East Hampton, who serves a mixed-income population of families. Because the district’s income average rises above the poverty line, East Hampton does not often qualify for farm-to-school grants. Still, there are children and families living below the poverty line who benefit from resources and exposure to farm to school activities. The CT Grown for CT Kids grant gave East Hampton the opportunity to build their local sourcing efforts and finally build their garden, connecting students’ experiences in the cafeteria with opportunities to see and participate in growing local food themselves.
Jen’s goal is to use the CTG4CTK grant as a stepping stone to launch East Hampton ever
deeper into hands-on outdoor learning and garden-to-school education. Jen plans to collaborate with a school teacher for a greenhouse grant, and the district is looking to apply for a USDA grant for a processing kitchen and to get farm-fresh food in schools. Jen is connecting with Vermont FEED, and she hopes to eventually see a garden or something similar in every school. Interested, but seems like a lot? Jen recommends “having all [school] administration behind you 100%.” In East Hampton, the superintendent helped to drum up volunteers from the community, the district’s curriculum director offered their support in connecting the garden to the classroom seamlessly, and the principal and assistant principal were kept on board and connected to the process. Jen suggests looking, in your goal, for “what the benefit is to everybody…make it worth their while.” For East Hampton, the benefit is seeing the children connect, on a tangible level, the food they eat to the seeds they plant. Even simpler, but no less powerful, the benefit is giving the children the opportunity to learn in and from nature.
There are a multitude of ways to support food and farm-to-school education to grow within schools, Early Childhood Education centers, farm businesses, and other educational institutions. With the CT Grown for CT Kids Grant, a project or program can be funded and a team of school health and nutrition advocates can be built to support the continuous inclusion of health and farm to school themes in your community. Find out more about the grant at CTFarmToSchool.org, on the Connecticut Department of Agriculture website, and keep a lookout for the second round of the CT Grown for CT Kids Grant, coming September 2022.