Building Community and Resiliency

If there is a unifying subject for Americans, it is sports. High schools, surrounded by acres of playing fields, routinely launch athletes nurtured by a society that celebrates all levels of athletic achievement, from Little League to the Major Leagues. They coddle those with potential.

Yet the sports complex, while teaching teamwork and self-discipline and enriching the occasional professional, is powerless against a triumvirate of related problems that threaten all of our children’s future: a perniciously sluggish economy, a warming planet and an epidemic of diet-related disease. And our public schools have not yet seized the lead in addressing the one issue that intimately links these three problems for students: food literacy.

In response to that vacuum, the Princeton School Gardens Cooperative, a 501(c)3 was created. Through establishment of schoolyard gardens, tastings and cooking classes, chef and farmer visits, field trips and more, its members have worked since 2005 to get that stake in the ground for public school students, thanks to the support of Princeton University, a family foundation and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

We are working to continue and deepen our k-12 continuum of projects, creating training and advocacy programs at our schools, then expanding them into ready-to-use templates that can overlay troubled school districts. Ultimately, we will link our programs more broadly to delicious, nourishing and sustainable food practices and policy.

While not original — think of Alice Waters’ Edible Schoolyard and Michelle Obama’s edible gardens, her food advocacy and her Let’s Move Chefs to Schools program — our programs are innovative and are building community, civic engagement and leadership around delicious, nutritious and affordable food.

Imagine, if you will, that all public school children, k-5, in New Jersey and beyond, grow gardens at school. They learn how to plant (water, sun, soil), tend (weeds, pollinators, trellises) and harvest (cherry tomatoes, warm from the sun). Together, they eat soup made in the classroom from the vegetables they grow. Teachers use the gardens for math and art, for respite and instruction — because they are there. These experiential lessons are amplified with tastings run by parent volunteers, with visits from local chefs and local farmers, and with trips to field and farm, to cheesemaker and market, creating networks that buttress education, the local economy and food security. For children, they also provide a glimmer of understanding of career paths beyond lawyer, doctor, scientist or academic.

In middle school, the students learn to cook, really cook, from chefs and bakers, during labs for classes of science, nutrition, social studies, history, geography and current events, and either during class or in an after-school program, they produce their own cooking show for classmates, which teaches technology, public speaking, organization, journalism, marketing and knowledge of food and cooking.

In high school, students delve into policy and politics, into the Dead Zone, fertilizer and agriculture; into corn, sugar, diet-related disease and health care; into water, irrigation and population growth; into composting, food waste and methane. For those who seek them, there are internships with farmers, producers and chefs and restaurateurs.

We imagine every high school graduate (and by extension, their parents and their teachers) leaving with a good measure of civic awareness, self-reliance and food security: Each can grow a salad, read a label, set a table — and nurture themselves and others with the understanding that their choices, in effect, are votes.

Big? Yes. But the problems are urgent. Spending on health is forecast to account for almost 20 percent of the economy by 2021; today, chronic disease (largely preventable) accounts for 75 cents for every dollar spent on health care. Obesity costs the U.S. $190 billion annually; diabetes costs $174 billion annually, with experts predicting a total of $3.4 trillion by 2020. And this doesn’t even touch the emptiness of a culture that tacitly approves super-sized eating in the car, alone, from a bag, or the absence of practices that nurture full-on pleasure that comes from meals made with and for those we love.

We see our ideas as inclusive and transformative, with burgeoning and diverse community support as proof (and chief resource). With our gardens, we pull in landscape architects, teachers, students and parents, plus chefs and restaurateurs, the faith-based community, anti-hunger advocates and others. With our Garden State on Your Plate tastings, we connect chefs to chefs, chefs to teachers, chefs to contract food service employees, farmers to parents, Princeton University to Princeton Public Schools; U.S. Rep Rush Holt to students, teachers, farmers, chefs and Steve Cochrane, our new school superintendent.

The Princeton School Gardens Cooperative builds community around the table. Please do join us!