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Maria Cerretani Headshot

Germinating Young Minds

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"Eww!" "That's kind of cool!" "Disturbing!"

If I told you that I overheard these comments while sitting in a high school classroom, you probably wouldn't guess that the students were reacting to a time-lapse video of a seed germinating.

And, no, this was not in a science class.

At Essex Street Academy on the Lower East Side, math teacher Sara Katz teaches the sole elective offered to the tenth grade -- a class called Food for Thought. She has been teaching the class during the spring semester for the past three years with funding assistance from Slow Food NYC's Urban Harvest program. The objective of the class is to encourage the students to think critically about the food they consume and their own interactions with the food system. Katz does not set out to criticize the students' food choices or drill them on micronutrients. Instead, the course is intended to give the high school sophomores a lens through which to make decisions and interpret information.

In a recent class, the students were starting seeds for their roof garden. Katz posed a number of questions and they broke off into groups to brainstorm. A question about which foods can grow in New York City sparked intense debate as the students grappled with the distinction between what could grow in the climate and their presumptions about what people actually grow in the city. So, when one student suggested grapes, another student disagreed because she felt it was impractical to grow grapes in an urban environment. Katz used the opportunity to encourage the class to consider all the options available for growing food in the city outside of a traditional farm setting. When she asked the students whether they could grow plants inside, many of them said no; but she urged them to consider spaces like windowsills, community gardens, fire escapes and rooftops.

Another question required the students to consider which crops would be ready to harvest in late May or early June. As anyone involved in a school garden knows, the height of the growing season occurs during summer break and so spring and fall crops are more suitable. This question stumped the students a little bit more. Katz pushed them to think about how they are used to having produce available in the supermarket year round, but reminded them that each crop has an actual season. Therefore, for their rooftop garden, they would be planting the makings of a giant salad- lettuces, radishes, herbs, etc.- to be harvested before the end of the school year.

Listening to the students debate food issues and observing their many "aha!" moments made me envious of the unique opportunity they have to take this class as high schoolers. Katz is exposing her students to an incredible range of information and experiences at a critical moment in their development as young citizens. They engage with current food issues through a range of articles and book excerpts tailored to each unit. There is an overnight trip to Hawthorne Valley Farm in Columbia County and field trip to The Meat Hook, a full-service butcher shop in Brooklyn that sources locally produced meat. They are going into the community and conducting surveys of nearby businesses while learning about food access. They are debating and role-playing economic and political issues related to food. It is truly impressive.

As a Slow Food NYC Urban Harvest committee member, I am continually awestruck by the passion, commitment and energy that teachers like Sara Katz bring into their classrooms. They are often treading into new territory when they break ground for a school garden, bring mobile kitchens into their schools, or develop a unit on food justice for high school students. The Urban Harvest in Schools initiative strives to sustain these teachers and programs through financial support and access to resources. One of the unique aspects of Urban Harvest is that we do not actually go into the schools with our own curriculum. Our objective is to support the teachers who want to incorporate a good food curriculum into their classrooms and assist them in achieving that goal. Because food is such a personal and sometimes sensitive subject and schools serve children from a myriad of backgrounds, this allows educators who are already attuned to the needs and histories of their students to institute an appropriate food curriculum.

Urban Harvest currently works with 14 schools in the South Bronx, Brooklyn, East Harlem, and the Lower East Side. On average, in the 13 public schools served, 75.7 percent of the students participate in the federal free lunch program. Each school is different in how it implements good food education, but projects include school gardens, food justice education, mobile kitchens and farm stands where students sell fresh local produce in their neighborhoods. Slow Food NYC is hosting its annual fundraiser, the (s)low down, on April 11th in Brooklyn to raise funds for the Urban Harvest program. The event will also honor Chef Bill Telepan for his dedication to improving school food through his Wellness in the Schools initiative.