"Turning Asphalt into Edible Education"

The New York TImes -
Tuesday, October 19, 2010

By SHARON OTTERMAN
 

When Celia Kaplinsky, a Brooklyn elementary school principal, visited a schoolyard garden project in Berkeley, Calif., a few years ago to see if it could work back home, something impressed her more than the lush rows of tomatoes and cucumbers.

It was the respectful way, she said, that the children worked together in the kitchen to prepare the food they had just helped grow, and the way that they spoke to one another as they sat down together to eat it.
 

They were listening to one another, which unfortunately people don’t often do anymore,” she said. “It was so meaningful.”
It was the garden’s ability to apparently change the way the children related to food that won her over. Meanwhile, Alice Waters, the famed chef of the Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse, who had founded the garden, decided Ms. Kaplinsky had the enthusiasm to make the project happen in New York.

So the two stood together Friday at the official opening of Ms. Waters’s first school garden project in New York City and one of its most ambitious school gardens yet — a half-acre stretch of spongy organic soil behind Public School 216 in Gravesend, Brooklyn, that until a few months ago was a blank stretch of asphalt.
 

There are already 285 school gardens in New York City, according to a recent state survey, part of a national school gardening trend. Most are small affairs, completely reliant on parent volunteers and teachers’ spare time, said Erica Keberle of Grow NYC, which coordinates school gardening projects around the city.


The P.S. 216 project, known as an Edible Schoolyard, is part of a second generation of gardens, which involve things like state-of-the art greenhouses, professional staff, large city grants, and ever-more-ambitious agendas. Ms. Waters’s project, for example, aims to find a solution to childhood obesity by integrating the lessons of food growing, food preparation and healthy eating through the curriculum. A recent study found that her projects in Berkeley had made headway toward that goal.


Edible Schoolyard New York will have four full-time staff members at P.S. 216 to manage the garden, develop cooking and teaching tie-ins, and start smaller gardens at 25 more Brooklyn schools. The $400,000 annual cost will come from the organization’s fund-raising, said John Lyons, the organization’s chief executive officer, who first got to know P.S. 216 seven years ago when he was principal-for-a-day there.
Fourth graders, their shoes muddy, planted the first apple trees and shoots of kale on Friday. By next year, there will be a retractable greenhouse and outdoor kitchen classroom, financed by $2 million in grants from the City Council and the Brooklyn borough president.
If Ms. Waters’s hope is to get children back in touch with humanity’s roots, two other second-generation projects take a more futuristic approach to urban gardening. In November, for example, The Manhattan School for Children, P.S. 333 on West 93rd Street, will inaugurate a rooftop science laboratory and greenhouse that emphasizes hydroponic growing techniques and is largely regulated by computer, to show how farms can flourish in urban spaces without soil.


The 1,440-square-foot space will have a smart board, a weather station and an aquaponic system, which raises fish and plants in a sustainable closed cycle. The water from the fish tanks flows through and fertilizes the plant beds, and the fish get back the filtered water.
The parents who spearheaded the project, Sidsel Robards and Manuela Zamora, said the $800,000 cost was financed through two years of galas and T-shirt and gift sales, plus $200,000 in grants from the City Council. A school science teacher will maintain the lab, with the help of New York Sun Works, a partner organization.


“We were just two moms that really wanted it to happen,” Ms. Robards said.
In Midtown at Food and Finance High School, there are already 5,000 tilapia growing in the basement in five huge tanks. Upstairs, the agriculturalist who runs the fish lab, Philson Warner, guides the students through hydroponic experiments — like growing a pineapple without soil.


Next on the school’s agenda is a rooftop greenhouse that will have an aquaponic system similar to the one planned for P.S. 333. The school has raised nearly $1.4 million in city funds for the upgrade, said Jessica Mates, who like Mr. Warner is employed by Cornell Cooperative Extension, a university outreach program.


The students, who are also working on an entrepreneurship projects to sell what they grow to local supermarkets, cook with the food, and also assist with experiments in hybridization and breeding.


“For example, we now have tilapia that look exactly like red snapper,” Ms. Mates said, “and that was, you know, just to see if they could do it.”