Cara Plott, former FoodCorps service member with Shanjida, a student at the Family School.
I began my year of service as a FoodCorps service member at the Family School not really knowing what to expect. Would I be able to find mentors to help me figure out the needs of the school? Would the school administrators be supportive and excited about expanding the number of classes learning in the garden? Would teachers feel comfortable using the garden space? Would my students be patient with me as I developed my teaching skills? And perhaps the most perplexing issue - how on earth could we engage a school of over 520 students in our garden which had only four small rectangular garden beds and a circle of eight stumps to sit on? However, I soon found myself welcomed into a community of teachers, administrators, students, families, and staff who were excited to collaborate with me to improve the culture of wellness at their school. Through these partnerships, we have made great strides in getting more classes growing in the garden, promoting vegetables and fruits in the cafeteria, and developing our school’s culture of wellness.
The beating heart of the garden always has been, and always will be, the teachers and students at the Family School. “Is this your garden?” was a common question I would be asked by people passing by the garden as I was watering in the afternoon. “No,” I would reply, “I am just a helper - this is the students’ garden. They planted the seeds and have done all the work.” My main job was to support even more teachers to use the garden, and to identify and address the barriers keeping teachers from using the garden. This year, for the first time ever, we had all 13 of our Kindergarten, 1st, and 2nd grade classes meeting for lessons in the garden where they planted seeds, grew and harvested their vegetables. During our classes we used our new “garden curriculum,” which we developed this year. The Garden Curriculum is an organized and easily accessible set of garden lessons and accompanying worksheets which we chose to empower our teachers to use the garden more in their classes. The lessons were chosen and organized with guidance from the teachers. The goal of the curriculum is to connect teachers with garden lessons that fit their needs so that they can continue to do the lessons on their own. In the fall, the lessons for 3rd, 4th, and 5th grades will debut. I was so impressed by how our students took ownership of what they grew. They were invested in every part of the process, including tasting their veggies raw when we harvested them.
Our successes didn’t stop at the garden gate. We also had four taste tests in the cafeteria featuring locally grown fruits and vegetables through the Department of Education’s Garden to Cafe program. At these taste tests our student Wellness Ambassadors donned their “Healthy Choice” badges (designed by one of our students) and encouraged their peers to try the food. Additionally, one of our second grade teachers initiated and organized the introduction of the CookShop in-class cooking program this year to our school. Seven of our teachers led these lessons in their classes, resulting in eight classes having the opportunity to go through the program. Our parent coordinator also led parent CookShop cooking workshops to engage our families in the lessons and concepts that students were learning in class. Beyond the CookShop cooking classes, we had many FoodCorps cooking lessons throughout the year. In these FoodCorps lessons we made everything from Sofritos (a lesson led by one of our support staff who is a Sofritos expert) to Kale Salsa using the kale we grew in our garden.
We also worked to make large scale changes in the culture of health and wellness at The Family School. Our Wellness Council met monthly and worked to include more parents and students in our activities. Out of our work came our first ever Wellness Week, a celebration of health at our school and in our community. It included Family Garden Visit Day, Salad Bar Celebration, a cafeteria taste test, two physical activity field days, and the Wellness Fair. All students at the school had the opportunity to go to the Wellness Fair, where they rotated around to different booths featuring seven engaging presenters from local organizations including Morris Heights Health Center, the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and Water2Kids. Members of our Wellness Council also advocated to our principal for more physical activity time for students during the school day and helped connect teachers with physical activity resources to support them in doing this.
Equally important to our accomplishments is remembering the challenges we faced and how we overcame them to grow stronger together. It was the beginning of the spring planting season; our students had carefully planted their seeds, and our baby sprouts were just getting established. We were so proud that we had gotten our seeds in early so that our vegetables would be ready well before the end of the school year. One morning I came to check on the plants and they were gone! Not pulled out, not dying, just gone. Later, we were to discover that this was the work of a conniving sparrow. However, in the moment, I was devastated! I was afraid that all of the lesson planning, scheduling, and student work would be thrown into chaos; that the teachers and students would lose interest and everything would fall apart. As I brushed away the wetness creeping into my eyes, I somberly walked up the stairs to cancel the class I had scheduled for that day. I assumed the teacher would not want her class to come out to the garden since there were no plants, but I was in for a surprise. “Of course we want to go out to the garden!” the teacher said when I told her what had happened. In fact, we can have the students try to figure out what happened, like detectives.” At that moment, I realized that I was not just a service provider at the Family School, I was a member of the Family. I had been viewing my work as a unidirectional service, while in reality it was a complete collaboration.
At the core of all that we have accomplished this past year at the Family School is the Family School’s culture of support and teamwork. The Family School is truly a family. When everyone takes one extra step to promote Wellness at our school - whether that is having a garden lesson in their classroom, helping to distribute food to teachers for CookShop programming, serving on the Wellness Council, helping to organize field day - all of those independent small steps come together to bring about larger changes in the entire school. Transforming a school and a community into a place where minds and bodies thrive starts with taking one small step. Together, there is no telling what can be achieved.
Cara Plott was a FoodCorps service member serving with Bronx Health REACH. She was partnered with The Family School in the Bronx, NY to integrate garden and nutrition lessons into classes, promote healthy food options in the cafeteria, and support a school wide culture of health. She is very grateful to have had the opportunity to work with The Family School, where teachers, administration, cafeteria staff, and students appreciate the importance of healthy bodies and healthy minds for learning and growing.