From Empty Lot to Thriving Garden: Edible Schoolyard NYC Transforms Food Education

October is National Farm to School Month. To learn more about food education in our own community, we caught up with the innovative Brooklyn based Edible Schoolyard NYC.

The garden started off barren. There was no life. The old parking lot did not appear to be a place where life could thrive. But three years later, that same parking lot is now an Edible Schoolyard at P.S. 216 in Brooklyn.

It exudes life with an array of different fruits and vegetables. How did this transformation occur? The Edible Schoolyard NYC program helped cultivate the empty plot into an oasis for community members and children.

The garden’s life began with the acquisition of organic soil from a farm in upstate New York. Organic compost and careful garden planning nurtured life in the garden. The Edible Schoolyard New York (ESYNYC) team, including a garden manager and garden and cooking educators, advanced the garden ecosystem that would lure bugs, birds and microorganisms back into the space. Mirem Villamil, a mother, educator, head garden manager and vegetable whisperer, observed: “The flying insects came first—fruit flies, bees, hoverflies—and then dragonflies, damselflies and butterflies. The earthworms did not show up until the summer of 2011 when we started composting.” Slowly but surely, the garden developed.

Fast forward to 2013: pears are bursting off the trees. Raised beds of braising greens, kales and other leafy greens are pleading “make a salad out of me!” Bees, butterflies and other insects are flying around the flowers. Edible Schoolyard NYC encouraged this thriving ecosystem and used it as an educational tool that has reached over 1,400 children. Few would believe that the space had not always been a  productive garden.

It all began in 1995. Alice Waters, founder of Edible Schoolyard, launched the Edible Schoolyard Project at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Berkeley, California. Her dream was that school gardens would educate children on food production and that they would then take cooking classes using the produce. She aimed for children to make healthier dietary choices from improved knowledge on fruits and vegetables as well as those culinary skills acquired from the program. Eighteen years later, the Edible Schoolyard project has inspired other Edible Schoolyards to commence throughout the United States. Edible Schoolyard NYC’s second showcase school site just opened in P.S./M.S. 7 in East Harlem, in time for the National Farm to School Month of October.

The popularity of school gardens has increased over the last couple of years, and although skeptics suggest that this is yet another trendy activity and not a lifestyle or institutional change, Mirem and the team hold a different opinion. They believe that people are rethinking the value of food.

Participants in ESYNYC contribute in their ways to the success of the program. Students supply enthusiasm and assist with general maintenance. The staff carefully plans and executes different projects in the Edible Schoolyard NYC garden and kitchen. The community contributes different vegetables varieties and gardening techniques. These resources are used in the 36 fall and winter lessons that are catered specifically for kindergarten to fifth grade classes of P.S. 216.

The garden curriculum augments lessons from other disciplines taught in the classrooms. Seed saving techniques are coupled with anthropology and history. Observations on the speed of plant growth help solidify concepts in math and science. Waste management is discussed through segments on composting and classroom projects quantifying individual trash output. The garden provides a practical learning environment where students can be challenged and view problems and concepts in a different light.

The Edible Schoolyard NYC classes begin and conclude under a wooden structure called “The Ramada.” Each class begins with an opening ceremony, which outlines the anticipated activities and concepts. The class then disperses into two smaller groups headed by garden educators, Miss Esther and Miss Cecilia. One day, Miss Cecilia discussed the importance of water for plants and animals while Miss Esther and her section explored the world of composting through a trip to the composting station. The students were engaged, active and excited. After interacting with soil, plants, insects and water, the class returned to The Ramada; perched on bales of hay, they settled into a semicircle to review what they had learned. Although the class had concluded, the students remained enthusiastic and bursting with stories and knowledge they intended to share.

What makes this program so special and safeguarded for longevity?  Teachers, parents, students and the community support the Edible Schoolyard NYC program in Brooklyn. As Mirem stated, “We are setting up kids to make educated food choices and, thus, be educated consumers.” Everyone needs to eat. The Edible Schoolyard approach to educating children to be aware and interested in how their food is produced and how it affects the body can foster future interest in all subjects related to food. It will be a lifestyle change that affects generations.

If you would like to volunteer at ESYNYC, please contact Stacey Slate at [email protected].  Additionally, if you are interested in donating to ESYNYC please click here.

To learn more about farm to school initiatives from Edible Communities around the country, check out our recent piece “No Eater Left Behind: Back-to-School Inspiration from Around the Nation”

Featured photo credit: Facebook/Edible Schoolyard NYC

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Raised outside of Philadelphia, Amy studied Sociology and Political Science with a focus on food systems at Pennsylvania State University. Afterwards, she trekked west to pursue good food, good beer and outdoor adventures in Portland, Oregon and followed that up with a stint with the Peace Corps. Amy spent three years in Paraguay as a beekeeping and agriculture volunteer and returned to the United States for graduate school at New York University for a Master’s Degree in Food Studies. Amy is currently writing incessantly, slinging vegetables, drinking large quantities of coffee and reading everything possible about food, agriculture, politics and culture.