Edible learning in Red Hook grows

The garden classroom at Mill Road Elementary School in Red Hook is unrolling plans to expand its program to the middle school and high school with a kick-off fundraiser Oct. 26.

The garden project started in the spring of 2011 and is run by the non-profit Harvest Hudson Valley, directed by Marla Walker. It includes a half-acre garden at the elementary school where a wide variety of flowers, fruits, and vegetables grow.

The goal is to bring “edible education” to students, according to the group’s website. It is a collaboration among educators, parents, the school district and Red Hook Education Foundation.

Teachers participate in the program voluntarily and it now has 100 percent participation throughout the elementary school. Students spend 45 minutes in garden-related learning every other week during the spring and fall with two garden teachers, Kallie Weinkle (K-2) and Christine Kurlander (3-5).

School administrators and staff have been very supportive, according to Kurlander, who also serves as Education Director for the project, but HHV is independently run and financed with help from the Red Hook Education Foundation. Kurlander said volunteers who help in the garden and donate materials have been a big part of the success of the project as well. Local farmers have donated plants, seeds, produce and more.

“It’s the whole picture of growing your own food, having opportunities to cook some of that food, and then eating it. And eating it means also working on school lunch reform,” Kurlander told The Observer.

Early successes include the addition of a salad bar in each lunch room (elementary, middle school, high school) through grant funding and the inclusion of Clara Wittek, the director of food service for Mill Road, in the project. “What we are really wanting to do is change behavior around nutrition and eating. And help kids to see where they live and see where their food comes from. That’s the whole idea of edible education,” Kurlander said.

A highlight of the 2013 growing season was a visit from chef Alice Waters when she came to Bard College to receive an honorary degree. Waters started the “Edible Schoolyard Project” in the late 1990s in California as one elementary school garden project that has become a network of over 2,000 garden classrooms.

According to Kurlander, two parents in the Red Hook school district, Tricia Reed and Tricia Paffendorf, were inspired by the Edible Schoolyard project when they founded Harvest Hudson Valley. Paffendorf serves as the horticulture director and Reed remains involved as a volunteer and advocate.

“To have [Alice Waters] come was such an incredible honor,” Kurlander said.

She and other members of the project’s team, including Wittek, have also attended the Edible Schoolyard Academy’s professional development trainings for the last two years.

“They were totally blown away that our food service person was on board with this. Usually, that’s a real bottleneck for these programs,” Kurlander said.

Besides learning about how to grow things, Kurlander said, the garden’s tie-ins to the rest of the curriculum are endless, from math lessons while measuring the ground area, to new vocabulary, and a seed collection project in which students practice writing instructions for planting in the next season. A “three sisters garden bed” with beans, squash and corn illustrates concepts from Native American studies for fourth graders each year.

The program will soon expand to include more lessons on how to cook with the food grown in the garden.

The project is poised to expand in other ways as well, with a new quarter acre site planned to open in the spring at Red Hook High School on the north side of the gym, to be shared by the high school and Linden Avenue Middle School. Kurlander said middle school and high school students will help design the new garden space over the winter with a goal of breaking ground in the spring.

“There’s been a lot of support in the high school,” Kurlander said, noting that Barbara Murray, who teaches physical education at the high school, has been a huge supporter of expanding the project to the upper grades.

The Oct. 26 benefit is a food-and-wine tasting and silent auction with the proceeds going to support the launch of the new garden. The event starts at 5:30pm at the Elmendorph Inn in Red Hook. Minimum ticket donation is $35, with suggested support levels of $50 and $200 (to include two tickets).

For more information, visit the group’s website, www.harvesthudsonvalley.org.

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