The spirit of “Old MacDonald” is alive and well at Paideia School in Midtown as students from all grade levels participate in the Urban Agriculture Program. With a little help from their teachers, each other and the community, students grow crops, compost food scraps, raise chickens, sample home grown vegetables and share their bounty with local organizations which feed the hungry.
The 2012/2013 Crop Report shows a whopping 1,664 pounds of food grown under the auspices of the program. In all, 28 different types of food were produced, including sweet potatoes, kale, snap peas, carrots, strawberries and poultry.
Tania Herbert, an alumni parent, is the urban agriculture coordinator who oversees the program. On a recent sunny afternoon, she helped a group of elementary students use their fine motor skills to carefully place tiny kale seeds into soil. In order to grow into seedlings, the soil trays were placed in a new greenhouse, a gift from the class of 2012.
Herbert explained that the UA program began with the composting program started four years ago by herself and former parent/board member Jane Cronin. The program made plenty of compost, but then they had to find a use for it. “The composting program kick started the whole urban ag program and it remains pivotal to our farming endeavors…if you feed the soil it will feed you,” she said.
Now, the program uses the compost at two farmlets offsite, one where the greenhouse is and a second location that is also home to 14 chickens. Mid-way through the last school year, students helped construct a “windrow” composting system at the farmlet, which generated approximately five cubic yards of finished compost. That allowed the farm beds to be fertilized this fall without having to purchase compost.
“In sustainability terms, it means we are able to add fertility to our vegetable beds from on site, using a passively aerated system (no electricity), reduced labor, and by accessing the organic waste stream from local restaurants and cafes, including the Wrecking Bar brewery and kitchen and Cakes and Ale,” Herbert said.
This fall, the Paideia chickens will dine on high quality food scraps from Sevananda Natural Foods and Open Door Community Center. “This makes it a full circle project since we also grow food for them – as well as school events such as the barbeue and feast,” Herbert said.
With regard to other aspects of farming, students learn about crop families, crop rotation, tools to avoid pesticides, how to dig sweet potatoes and prepare kale dishes, and also very important, how to share and give back to their community.
Most of the food grown goes to community partners like the Clarkston Community Center’s women’s food co-op, where Herbert delivers food every second Monday. The program also provides nutrient dense food for the Open Door Community and Clifton Ministries. The urban ag program also is building partnerships with the residents. While school was out for the summer, some students continued working in these community gardens, growing tomatoes, sweet potatoes, snap beans and pumpkins.
Tenth grader Sally Apolinsky worked in the program last year and is back again tending chickens, watering plants and harvesting food. She also helped build the chicken coops with elementary students. She had no previous experience with farming. The fact that most of the food grown at Paideia goes to feed people without much access to fresh food has made an impression on her. “Before, I just kind of took it for granted that people have good fresh food to eat, but they don’t,” she said. Growing food has made her more thoughtful about what she eats. “I became a vegetarian because of dealing with the chickens,” she said.
Senior Lulu Lacy has been involved in the program since it started in her sophomore year. She has gardens and chickens at home, so her work at school is a natural extension of her ecological and environmental interests. “Tania is also interested in social justice, which is why we donate so much of our food to local food pantries. All people deserve quality food and the promise of a quality earth for their children,” she said.
Alumna Eva Steinberg ’13 recently e-mailed Herbert to tell her how well the Urban Ag experience had prepared her for her current work at her green hall dormitory at Wesleyan University. “I’m involved with sustainability, composting and farming – all I learned from you,” she wrote.
As with regular farming, predicting the harvest is tricky due to all kinds of variables, including the weather. But Herbert said there should be fresh, locally produced vegetables every week for these community groups. “Part of what makes this program so awesome is that the kids get to help people outside of Paideia grow food,” she said.
In addition to Clarkston, students are working with residents at the Decatur Housing Authority in their community garden. And students who are in the junior high Homeless Immersion Course worked to install a summer vegetable garden on what was previously an asphalt parking lot for an under-resourced community in southeast Atlanta.
The program also helps the school bond with its neighbors as alumni families lend their land for farming and enjoy the harvests of fresh locally organic food, said Herbert.