October is ‘Farm to School’ month, and students at West Hartford’s Charter Oak Academy are growing some of their own food.
By Ronni Newton
There’s eating locally grown food – and then there’s eating really locally grown food, as in food that is grown in the same room in which it’s eaten.
At West Hartford’s Charter Oak International Academy, a group of fifth graders took the “farm-to-school” movement to a new level when on Friday morning they harvested a variety of lettuces grown right in the cafeteria, in an EvanLEE 4-tier Indoor Growing System. They would see that same harvest later in the day when they returned for lunch.
Tim Prosinski, director of Nutrition Services for West Hartford Public Schools, engaged the students in the process of growing and eating their own food. The project at Charter Oak was funded by the Carson Family Foundation Grant from the Foundation for West Hartford Public Schools, with Kirsten Sanderson as the lead teacher.
According to the Foundation, the grant provides a “student-led, authentic learning experience, which builds excitement and brings fresh and healthy vegetables to the cafeteria while strengthening the connection to the land/soil as the building block for all living things.”
In addition to growing vegetables on a hyper-local level, students have been learning about their role as stewards of the environment, sustainable food movements throughout the world, and how they personally can have a role in preventing the a decline in the health of the environment.
The lettuce harvested Friday was planted just four weeks ago, Prosinski said.
As the harvest began, students were instructed to leave about 1.5 inches of green above the soil, so the plants would continue growing. Another harvest will be ready in about 10 days, and a third harvest 10 days after that.
In addition to the EvanLEE system at Charter Oak, there is also one at Conard High School and another in the Strive program on the American School for the Deaf campus.
Kelly Passerini from EvanLEE said they are the first units funded by a foundation.
Representatives from the Foundation for West Hartford Public Schools attended the harvest, as did Superintendent of Schools Tom Moore. Charter Oak PTO parent representatives Kim Hughes (who helped write the grant) and Jen Smith were also in attendance and assisted with the harvesting.
Friday also was a celebration of “Connecticut Grown for Connecticut Kids Week,” and Molly Deegan and Chelsey Hahn from the UConn Cooperative Farming Extension in Tolland, as well as State Reps. Jillian Gilchrest and Tammy Exum, were at Charter Oak to encourage efforts to “put local on your tray.”
All posed eating apples that Prosinski had procured from Rogers Orchards in a photo op for UConn’s “HardCORE CT Apple & Pear Challenge.” Prosinski had a bin of pears that he had procured from Rogers Orchards as well.
“Eighty-one schools throughout the state have signed on,” said Deegan regarding efforts to serve locally-grown food in cafeterias. The program offers great potential for encouraging healthy eating, she said.
“We’re trying to encourage food service providers to connect with farmers,” added Hahn. Involving the students with growing their own foods is an added bonus.
Prosinski said that every school lunch has to have five different components – milk, protein, grain, fruit, and vegetable. On Friday, salad made from the harvested lettuces would be served as an accompaniment to lunch, and he said there was likely enough so that students who brought lunch would also get to sample some.
He said cucumbers and cherry tomatoes would be added to the lettuce, and it would be topped with a low-calorie raspberry vinaigrette that the students had already given a thumbs-up to during a taste test.
When the next harvest is made in about 10 days, the lettuces will be used in a featured salad, Prosinski said.
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