One greenhouse at a time

by Kate Vander Wiede
Managing Editor
Tuesday Dec 13, 2011

Barbarba Lynch's El Gruppo takes on the school lunch system, starting at the Blackstone

The dream seems impossible.

Finding a way to remove the Blackstone Elementary School from the citywide school lunch program is an undertaking that will require systematic and structural changes to the school. It will take money. It will take time.

But despite the challenges ahead, South Ender Elle Jarvis said her "ultimate goal" still stands.

"We really want to make this a special program here, and extend it to other schools," said Jarvis, program manager of Meet the Worms! and general manager of Barbara Lynch's test kitchen and educational South End home, Stir.

Lynch was called upon in spring 2011 by Mayor Tom Menino and City Councilor Mike Ross, who asked the chef to go through the schools and choose a green house to revitalize. Not long after their meeting At-Large City Councilor John Connolly publicized the use of expired food in school lunches.

"We realized this was the perfect time, and that we had a responsibility to do our part," said Jarvis of the confluence of events. "We chose the Blackstone School for a few different reasons: it's our community and it's our neighborhood. We have three restaurants here. A lot of people with the company work in the neighborhood. It just made sense."

By June, Meet the Worms! was in full force. Instead of starting in the greenhouse, Jarvis began work on the Blackstone's outdoor garden. During three service days, the Barbara Lynch El Gruppo cleaned the garden out, created new beds, and planted "everything you need to make salsa," Jarvis said.

At one family night event, Jarvis and her team handed out recipe cards and shopping lists to families, who could then walk through the garden and pluck the food they needed to make salsa at home.

"Some of the kids weren't into it," Jarvis recalled. She laughed, "But some of the kids were like "Oh my gosh, look at all these pickles!' And we were like, 'They aren't pickles, they are cucumbers!' and they were like, 'Cucumbers! Great!'"

On a recent Friday, Jarvis is joined in the greenhouse by five volunteers from St. Stephen's Episcopal church. On their arrival, it is clear the greenhouse had seen better days. In the hour they are there, though, the group works to pull out a massive garden of cacti; to clear out a dying "salad bar," where salad greens and herbs provided meals for students in the spring; to hang "wooly pockets" - fabric, elevated flower beds - from the walls.

As she pulled up dead salad greens, St. Stephens' director of youth programs Liz Steinhauser explained that the teens of St. Stephen's had taken the greenhouse on at the start of 2011 as their community project. Knowing the Blackstone was struggling - in early 2010 it was chosen as a turnaround school - the teens wanted to do something to help their neighborhood.

"The teens spent a lot of time last year learning about local food and garden with the nonprofit, the Food Project," Steinhauser said, noting teens learned about climates, and took a trip to Foodie's to see where the food comes from, among many other things.

When Meet the Worms! joined in the cause this summer, Steinhauser said the organization's financial resources and talent mixed with the teens' energy matched perfectly.

"I don't know if it is utterly unique," Steinhauser said, "but the fact that this a school-church-local business-nonprofit is kind of cool."

By the day's end, the greenhouse has started to look more like the blank canvas Jarvis will need in the coming year. Twelve large plants are being watered in the wooly pockets 10 feet off the ground; the sea of cactus has been cleared to make way for raised beds.

With a wide grin, Jarvis tells me about the field trip to a farm in Sudbury that Meet the Worms! took students on. She notes Meet the Worms is now responsible for providing food on Family Nights (at the most recent one, a wildly popular kale Caesar salad took the place of the usual hot dogs).

Soon, first and third graders will be visiting the greenhouse to plant seeds, starting the soon-to-be-nonprofit on an entirely new trajectory. By Jan. 1, Meet the Worms! hopes to have a lab, outfitted by Cafco, installed in the classroom adjoining the greenhouse.

Having paired with mostly teachers from the first and third grade, Jarvis is planning lessons that match their curriculum. Third graders learn about Massachusetts, so the green house will grow traditional Massachusetts plants. Students will raise worms, grow "trashbag potatoes" and track plants in notebooks.

"I don't think it's that big of a stretch to think that having a greenhouse in your school helps you think about science differently," said Steinhauser. "If you're growing food in your school then you're going to think differently about nutrition in the future."

The hands-on activity allowed by the greenhouse and lab could help cement what students are learning in class, said 17-year-old Shatell Maddrey, a South Ender and teen with St. Stephens. "The MCAS scores are going down and students are obviously not getting the work from just reading and writing," Maddrey said. "By planting seeds and doing it hands on, it's better than just reading an article."

Help from Meet the Worms! and St. Stephen's could also help raise moral in the school, Maddrey said.

"I feel better about myself volunteering here," she said, "and I feel like the students will think, 'Oh, somebody helped us make this, and that means someone cares about us.'"

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