Riverhead, local schools work together for a grant to make your kids’ gardens better


Children have historically resisted eating their vegetables — something proponents of school gardens are trying to change.

To that end, public school districts in Riverhead, Southold and Shelter Island towns have recently collaborated on a joint application for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm to School grant. They plan to work with local farmers to either enhance their own school gardens or create ones for the first time.

Students will not only appreciate healthy eating habits if they take part in growing their own food, educators say: They’ll also learn about math, science and other core subjects through hands-on experience. First Lady Michelle Obama has supported the farm-to-table programs as part of her efforts to encourage children to embrace healthier lifestyles.

Lucy Senesac of Sang Lee Farms in Peconic, the new liaison between North Fork school districts and local farmers, recently came across the federal grant opportunity and helped the districts with the joint application process. The monies will be awarded next month.

Ms. Senesac, a Mattituck High School alumna who began working at the organic farm five years ago after graduating from college, said she enjoys finding new ways to build relationships with the farming community, along with teaching the area’s youth about organic living. Two years ago, she launched a new children’s farming summer camp.

“This is a way for me to help people — by feeding them healthy food and teaching them about nutrition,” Ms. Senesac said. “That’s a great feeling at the end of the day — even more so now, with kids.”

Pictured in Southold Elementary School's garden Monday (from left): Greenport and Southold schools superintendent David Gamberg; Lucy Senesac, Slow Food East End’s master farmer for North Fork schools; Riverhead superintendent Nancy Carney; and Mattituck superintendent Anne Smith. (Credit: Jen Nuzzo)
Pictured in Southold Elementary School’s garden Monday (from left): Greenport and Southold schools superintendent David Gamberg; Lucy Senesac, Slow Food East End’s master farmer for North Fork schools; Riverhead superintendent Nancy Carney; and Mattituck superintendent Anne Smith. (Credit: Jen Nuzzo)

If approved, the grant will allow the districts to coordinate educational programs between schools and farmers, train cafeteria staff and purchase equipment, and create summer programs and internships for students to learn how to cook with fresh produce.

Ms. Senesac took on the role of Slow Food East End’s master farmer for North Fork schools last October after KK Haspel, a local educator and owner of The Farm in Southold, died.

Ms. Haspel and her husband, Ira, constructed Southold’s organic garden, which has acted as a model for other districts.

David Gamberg, superintendent of Southold and Greenport school districts, titled the $100,000 joint application “Preserving the past, finding the future: Healthy farms, healthy citizens.”

“We’re trying to make the case that we are a region that is ripe to get this,” he said. “There’s about $350,000 for the entire state, so it’s very competitive.”

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 established the Farm to School grant program within the U.S. Department of Agriculture in an effort to improve access to local foods in schools.

In a press release issued earlier this month, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced that preliminary data for the 2013-14 school year indicates that “strong farm-to-school programs can increase the number of students purchasing school breakfast and lunch, improve consumption of healthier foods at school and reduce plate waste.”

The study also found that schools across the country purchased nearly $600 million worth of food locally during the 2013-14 school year a 55 percent increase compared to the previous year.

Oysterponds Elementary School, a pre-K through sixth-grade district for students in Orient and East Marion, has created learning opportunities with its garden and has also collaborated on lesson plans with local farmers, including Tom Stevenson of The Oysterponds Farm in Orient.

Oysterponds Superintendent Richard Malone said the grant money would help enhance opportunities to use the garden for the district’s science, technology, engineering and math program, known as STEM.

“Each class is currently responsible for an assigned area and the cultivation of selected crop,” he said. “The produce is available as a healthy treat or snack in the lunch room. Additional funding would support additional equipment and structure development for year-round crops.”

Nancy Carney, superintendent for the Riverhead School District, said grant money would be used to establish its first school garden program. Since Phillips Avenue Elementary School in Riverside has a summer program, Ms. Carney said the district hopes to begin with that building since students will be on-hand to tend to the garden when help is needed the most.

Ms. Carney described the joint application as a “wonderful collaboration,” since the district is constantly looking for ways to increase the number of locally grown foods in its school cafeterias. Keith Graham, the district’s food services director, has also been eager to bring in more fresh fruit and produce, she added.

“Our plans for the money, should we win the grant, are largely dependent on what the other districts in our group want to do,” Ms. Carney said. “We have discussed ideas ranging from educational enrichment opportunities to community gardens to infrastructure improvements.”

In the Mattituck-Cutchogue School District, a garden has been planted at the elementary school and a greenhouse is being built at the high school.

Jamesport farmer Carl Gabrielsen donated a 1,200-square-foot greenhouse as part of the district’s latest sustainable agriculture initiative. He did the same for Southold.

This year, Mattituck High School students can take a new environmental science class that covers not only the basics of agriculture, but sustainable farming practices.

Local educators have also worked together to create agriculture-based learning opportunities. Recently, more than two dozen teachers from over 10 districts across Long Island gathered at Mr. Gabrielsen’s farm to discuss the current state of agriculture education in an attempt to enhance their own curriculum.

As for the grant, Ms. Senesac said the monies will be awarded by mid-November and a decision about how much each district gets will then be determined.

“Most school gardens are very small, so you’re not getting a whole lot of produce in kitchens — maybe they’ll get a salad bar once a month,” she said. “Actually getting it into the cafeteria every day for the whole year — even in the winter — that’s the goal.”

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Photo caption: Lucy Senesac of Sang Lee Farms picks carrots Monday at Southold Elementary School’s organic garden. She’s helping local schools collaborate with farmers on school garden curriculum. (Credit: Jen Nuzzo)