Harvesting a healthier community

Community garden feeds high school students


A community garden founded four years ago is now producing food that is used in Hewlett High School’s cafeteria, which led to the Hewlett-Woodmere School District’s farm-to-school movement, dubbed Zero Miles to Plate. The garden, which also functions as a learning center, is close to the high school, across East Rockaway Road.

“A lot of times when you ask a young kid where their food comes from, they’ll say the store,” joked Craig Orvis, the chairman of the New York School Nutrition Association’s Farm to School committee and the school lunch manager for upstate St. Lawrence-Lewis BOCES. Educating students about where their food comes from is one of the benefits of the Hewlett-Woodmere district’s farm-to-school movement.

October was designated National Farm to School Month by the Obama administration in 2010, and the Hewlett-Woodmere Community Garden Learning Center is getting in on the fun. Since 2013, the garden’s purpose has been to bring the community together by promoting healthy eating habits and general knowledge of where food comes from.

When school began last month, garden volunteers started bringing vegetables to the high school. “[Getting our vegetables into the cafeteria] was the kids’ goal since day one,” said David Rifkind, a social studies teacher at Hewlett High and one of the project’s main advisers.

Rifkind said that the cafeteria staff has tried to present meals cooked with these vegetables in an appealing way, including sautéing beans in an almond sauce and introducing salads with cranberry vinaigrette to the prekindergarten, kindergarten and first-grade students at the Franklin Early Childhood Center.

Farm-to-table and farm-to-school programs have been gaining popularity across the country. Anna Mullen, a spokeswoman for the National Farm to School Network, said, that beyond the educational benefits its research shows, students who help grow their food are more likely to eat it. “The program can serve as training wheels to help these students build healthy eating habits,” she said.

Mullen also noted the network’s Benefits of Farm to School fact sheet, which cites multiple studies conducted by groups such as the Burlington School Food Project, the Center for Food and Justice and Duke University, which found that children who eat healthier earn better grades. Orvis summed it up: “Hungry kids can’t learn.”

The benefits of locally grown food have spread beyond the school district. The community garden has donated food to Cedarhurst-based Rock and Wrap It Up!, a 23-year-old nonprofit organization that battles poverty. At chapters across the country, unused food is collected and distributed to churches, food pantries and other groups helping those in need. “Whatever’s donated stays in the community,” said Syd Mandelbaum, the program’s founder and CEO. “Think local, act local,” he added.

Mandelbaum said that supermarkets often reject food because of its appearance. “That’s not an issue when you’re collecting food from these community gardens,” he said.

Laura Fratti, the leader of Girl Scout Troop 737, has been volunteering at the garden along with her daughter, Stella, and said the girls observed that themselves. “Some girls noticed how some of the carrots grow in strange shapes,” Fratti said. “Our food that comes from the supermarket often looks perfect. These carrots didn’t look perfect, but they tasted great.”

The Interfaith Nutrition Network is another organization that receives donation from the garden. Dana Lopez, a spokeswoman for the group, said that it is especially thankful for fresh produce because the marginalized people who use its shelters and soup kitchens don’t have access to quality vegetables. “It’s like Christmas whenever we get a donation of fresh food,” she said. “We’re so appreciative of them, and we’ll take as much as they can donate.”

Another benefit of sourcing food locally is that it brings the community together. Orvis said he believes that a good next step for the Hewlett-Woodmere program would be to get more of its cafeteria menu items from other local farms. Benefits are threefold, he said: children receive expanded menus, the schools won’t have to purchase as much food, and the local farmers can network.

Mullen agreed that the farm-to-school movement could benefit local farmers as much as the students. “I’ve heard stories of kids begging their parents to buy vegetables from a nearby farm after they had them at school,” she said.

On Oct. 15 the Hewlett-Woodmere Garden Learning Center held a beet and carrot pull with local Girl Scout and Cub Scout troops. Prizes were awarded in categories such as the largest carrot pulled. Students from Hewlett High School also helped the scouts make their own scarecrows. Rifkind said he hoped that events like this would raise awareness of the project. “We really want to get the word out to the kids,” he said.

To help support the garden, community members can purchase a personalized brick to be installed along a new patio being built. Bricks are $75 each. The money raised will be used to improve the irrigation system, install a barrier-free elevated planting bed and purchase new benches. For more information, visit: bit.ly/2gqJrzt.