On a recent Friday morning, a group of Edgartown School students could be found in the back of the building, grossly immersed in studies. They had no books, no pencils, no teachers telling them to quiet down, only their hands for tools. The six students, all under the age of nine, were wildly excited to be back to school to pick from the beds of vegetables they had started during the school year.
In the past two years, every school on the Island has built a garden to help contribute not only to the lunch programs but to the curriculum as well. And if it seems sacrilegious to some to be at school when you don’t have to be — smack in the middle of summer — it’s not to these students, who return every week, sometimes with their parents, to keep their gardens growing.
For most on the Island, winter is the off-season, but for those managing school gardens during the summer it’s quite the opposite. Melinda DeFeo, the school garden coordinator at the Edgartown School, started a garden club to encourage students and parents to come out every Friday to help harvest the crops, weed and water.
Ms. DeFeo alternates weeks among school families who are in charge of weeding, watering and picking. “I meet with them, tell them tasks, and show them how to do something,” she said from a community garden workshop for educators she was attending in Seattle. “We’re really lucky . . . the weather’s been perfect for growing.”
The Edgartown school garden is laid out in the shape of a sunflower, with each bed dedicated to a different grade and different theme. There is a seventh grade pizza garden, a fourth grade salsa garden and a third grade Colonial garden that has herbs and popping corn.
“The biggest challenge is getting kids there,” Ms. DeFeo said, although on this particular Friday that didn’t seem to be an issue. “I would love to have more kids interacting in the summer-time, and I’m hoping as parents get to know what’s going on, they will help,” she added.
On Friday Darren Belisle and his two sons, Wyatt and Ben, were helping pick cilantro, along with third graders Alexis, Cas, Heather and Addy, who were helping pick leeks, flowers, basil, peppers, eggplant, kale, chard and squash. The children wanted to pick everything they could, and ran from one bed to another to see if the green beans were ready. They determined as a group they weren’t big enough yet.
Whatever is harvested on Fridays is sold at a school farmer’s market every week in the parking lot. Money earned at the market goes directly back into the garden; and this year it will help fund a greenhouse slated to be built at the end of the summer.
“Next year I hope that as I get better at coordination of school-year growing, we can grow more things specifically for the farmer’s market because it’s such a great resource for funding for tools,” Ms. DeFeo said.
Market coordinator Lucia Haymann was out picking with her daughter, Addy, before the market started. “I love watching everything grow and definitely eating it,” Addy said. “I’m just learning to cook and it’s kind of scary,” one of her classmates said. “I love that we get to work in it in school and it’s like an outdoor classroom,” said another. They wandered off in amazement of the long stems of leeks poking out of the ground.
“Everything is very tied as far as curriculum,” Ms. DeFeo said. “I’ve seen how these programs make a difference in children’s lives both academically and at home. They are the educators of the adults in their world. Kids teach their parents without my saying what’s right and wrong.”
At the Oak Bluffs School, Stacie Nobel-Shriver helps coordinate families to take care of the garden during the summer. The hardest chores are the same ones all gardeners face: weeding and watering.
“We hope it’s an incentive to get a parent to help out so they can harvest the vegetables and take what they pick home,” Mrs. Shriver said. “There are about five of us [who work in the garden] but we would have liked to have 10.”
The Oak Bluffs school is growing potatoes, carrots, radishes, lettuce, corn, squash, beans and herbs in their garden. “We called on people that are like my core group who always volunteer, who have an interest,” Mrs. Shriver said. “But we run behind in terms of having enough adults . . . .”
Like Ms. DeFeo, the students are the ones Mrs. Shriver really wants to see out in the garden. “The students are the most enthusiastic,” she said. “So when they are involved, they love it.”
“Families are always looking for something to do with their kids over the summer,” said Nicole Cabot, who runs the West Tisbury School garden. “It’s such a small amount of time and kids feel like they’re contributing so much.”
Mrs. Cabot said her school too rotates among families to help out with garden chores. “Weeding one little garden bed is such an accomplishment for a child,” she said.
There are not exactly ample funds to pay school garden coordinators; many volunteer their time, or are paid a small amount for their efforts. But this has not dampened the enthusiasm they bring to the job.
“We’re talking about doing a fall harvest festival. We have a great apple tree,” Mrs. Cabot said. “We’re hoping to have cider pressing, herb drying, seed saving and a tasting area for different vegetables that kids might not try but when they harvest something they seem like they all want to try it.”
Noli Taylor, the volunteer coordinator at Island Grown Initiative (IGI) who oversees the school garden coordinators, praised the growing corps of teachers, parents and students who help keep school gardens growing during summer vacation.
“We think it’s a really exciting opportunity to have families more directly involved with the garden and have them feel more a part of their kids’ school,” Mrs. Taylor said. “It’s nice for the kids to have them come and see that it is really theirs — and it’s a bonus for all the families that get to take the produce home.”
Mrs. Taylor has been supervising the Chilmark School garden this summer; she said there have been more volunteers this year. “It’s going so incredibly well — better than we could have ever imagined, and now here we are with gardens at every school and real teams of people at each school,” she enthused.
Another project she and IGI are working on is gleaning for schools, which involves collecting leftover crops from Island farmers who have excess produce for free. “The issue with the cafeterias sourcing more local ingredients is cost,” Mrs. Taylor explained of the pilot program that started a couple weeks ago. “So we have to figure out how to get more local food into schools.”
Ms. DeFeo added: “We want kids to understand their food systems. Schools have tons of curriculum issues that we can address through gardens.”
After they finished picking, the four girls at the Edgartown School shared the weight of the basket to carry it to the table where they would sell it at market. The overflowing carrot tops bounced as they walked, and then the girls carefully arranged their harvest for display.
“This is a student garden, it’s not my garden, it’s their garden,” Ms. DeFeo said. “They have so much pride and ownership in it.”
This column is meant to reflect all aspects of agriculture and farm life on the Vineyard. Remy Tumin may be contacted at 508-627-4311, extension 116, or e-mail her at email@example.com