NJ Celebrates a Successful Farm to School Week

The following was released by our friends at the New Jersey Department of Agriculture.

It is a well-known fact that fresh fruits and vegetables are healthy for us, and if they are grown near where we live, they are even better. It makes sense, then, to serve fresh, New Jersey produce to school children in their school meals programs. That is the basis of the farm-to-school movement and to celebrate this connection between New Jersey schools and farmers, the New Jersey Department of Agriculture celebrates Jersey Fresh Farm to School week each year the last week of September.

This year, New Jersey Secretary of Agriculture Douglas H. Fisher kicked off Farm to School Week on September 22 with a visit to Philips Academy Charter School, in Newark, to highlight the school’s efforts to incorporate local produce into school meals program and educate students about where their food comes from.

“Each year, excitement about the farm to school program has grown around the state with more schools serving New Jersey produce and growing it themselves in school gardens,” said Secretary Fisher. “Students are benefiting greatly from eating more healthy, local fruits and vegetables and learning about agriculture.”

Philips Academy converted from an independent school in 2013 and has 370 K-8 students from Newark, East Orange and Irvington. The school has a 4,600-square-foot rooftop garden, started in 2009, that is currently growing leafy greens and herbs as well as some remaining summer harvests. Lunch is served family style and features made-from-scratch dishes using seasonal, local produce (pictured above).

The Academy hosts a unique, co-curricular program known as EcoSPACES, which is committed to providing students with the tools to lead healthy and environmentally productive lives through an interactive approach to learning. Frank Mentesana, EcoSPACES director, said the program empowers children and their families with the education needed to be able to make good decisions to lead healthier lives.

“At Philip’s Academy Charter School, we believe farm to school is important because it provides support systems that assist us as educators in instilling in our students the core values of our EcoSPACES Program,” said Mentesana. “Our focus on food literacy is taught through our various learning environments to enable students to understand where food comes from, the importance of seasonal, local and whole foods, in addition to wellness. Farm to School is a great resource for these initiatives.”

During the visit, Secretary Fisher was able to visit the school’s rooftop garden and the cafeteria to see the school lunch service.

Nathan Hale School, in Cartaret
Nathan Hale School, in Cartaret

On September 24, NJDA Division of Food and Nutrition Director Rose Tricario visited Nathan Hale School in Carteret, which serves 500 students grades pre-K to 5th and is one of 151 schools in the state to receive the New Jersey Department of Agriculture’s Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program this year. Through this program, the school receives a grant which provide students with fresh fruits and vegetables as a snack during the school day.

School Principal Christian Zimmer said the school community is thankful to have been selected to receive the generous and needed grant for the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program.

“Nutrition is a very important part of our educational process and we are thrilled to have this opportunity,” said Zimmer.  “It is vital to support our local farms and we work with Maschios, our food service management company, to deliver the best fresh fruits and vegetables for our students.”

During the visit, Tricario visited Jessica McGrath’s first-grade classroom to observe the fresh fruit and vegetable program in action. Peaches from Larchmont Farms in Deerfield were served. As part of the visit, the students were able to ask Tricario a few questions about her job and school lunches. They talked about their favorite fruits and some students even saved their peach seeds in hopes that they would be able to plant a tree at home.

Dorothy L. Bullock School, in Glassboro
Dorothy L. Bullock School, in Glassboro

To wrap up Farm to School Week on September 25, Tricario celebrated outstanding school gardens at Dorothy L. Bullock School in Glassboro and Timber Creek Regional High School in Gloucester Township.

Bullock School’s garden was built in May 2015 with the help of Ahmed Hassan, a California-based contractor who hosted the HGTV show “Yard Crashers” and DIY Network’s “Turf War.” Supplies and labor were donated by Elite Landscaping of Berlin. An army of volunteers pitched in over the course of a weekend to install the garden.

Since then, garden coordinator Sonya Harris, a first-grade special education teacher at the school, said the garden has thrived with the help of the staff, students, parents and community.

“The community members love it and parents love coming with their children, who enjoy giving their parents tours of the garden,” said Harris. “We are currently planning for fall planting of lettuce, broccoli, and collard greens and are creating a project-based STEAM Lab/Garden Observation Classroom to teach the students science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics through garden education.”

Harris said currently, the school has Wellness Wednesdays where a Food Corps representative prepares a healthy dish with the students. This month, children made salsa using tomatoes harvested from the garden.

At Timber Creek Regional High School, Tricario toured the school garden and watched student members of the Green Team, a club charged with the task of reducing the school’s carbon footprint, plant soybeans and harvest eggplant, tomatoes, peppers and herbs for the culinary class, who prepared tomato bruschetta and eggplant parmesan for the guests to sample.

“The food from the garden has been used for various purposes around the school,” said Charles Renner, AP environmental teacher and Green Team advisor. “The cafeteria staff has used some of the vegetables on the salad bar. Our Multiple Disabilities program has used the veggies to teach the kids about proper cutting techniques, nutrition and culinary skill, as has our culinary classes. I use the garden in my classes to teach nutrition, crop rotation, watering techniques, soil types, composting, testing for nutrient levels and other lessons.”

In addition, the Department of Agriculture launched a new Jersey Fresh Farm to School website, which has resources for schools on how to start a farm-to-school program, where to source New Jersey produce and how to plant a school garden. For farmers, the website provides information on how they can sell their produce to schools and gives them farm-to-school marketing materials.

The website has a listing of farm-to-school events and news and has helpful links for students and parents. Also, each month a “Top Tomato” will be highlighted, a person who has made a difference in Farm to School. In addition, the website links to the newly-created Jersey Fresh Farm to School Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest pages.

“Successful farm-to-school programs need the support of school administrators, teachers, parents and the community,” said Fisher. “We congratulate all the schools and farmers across the state that are currently involved and encourage those not yet involved to visit our new website or call the Department for assistance.”

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