Fighting Childhood Obesity: Local Teachers and Students Learn About Farming, Sustainability, and Healthy Eating at Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Pocantico Hills, NY
Area teachers get a lesson in farming and sustainability at the Stone Barns Center
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John Borchert, who teaches life sciences to seventh- and eighth-grade students at Rye Middle School, was one of the program’s participants. He has long been passionate about turning children on to a world of healthier choices; last September, he created an elective on environment and sustainability at his school. He also has built a 400-square-foot, three-season garden, which is tended by schoolchildren during the year and by campers in the summer. Borchert says he’s even gotten the school cafeteria to prepare meals with spinach, kale, and radishes grown in the garden. “The best way to brainwash kids about eating veggies is to let them grow them, pick them, and eat them,” said Borchert, who added that many kids literally don’t know where food comes from.
While introducing themselves during the morning orientation, the teachers shared stories about their school gardens. A Brooklyn teacher was planning a roof garden. Some talked about cooking harvested produce in the classroom, while others have kids composting. All agreed lessons about food can be taught as part of any subject, whether it’s math, science, or social studies.
But these teachers remain in the vanguard.
“Food security, healthy bodies, sustainability — these are not the things children are typically learning in the classroom,” said Judy Fink, Stone Barns’ program director. “Teachers like the ones who participated in the ‘Nominate Your Teacher’ contest are already engaged in sustainability and healthier lifestyles. They seemed to be a more sophisticated group than many of the teachers who come here on class trips. A day like this is an opportunity to further engage and motivate them so they will bring back these ideas and integrate them into the curriculum.”
Teachers met with Zach Wolf, a dead-ringer for Viggo Mortensen in Witness. Wearing wide suspenders and a large-brim hat over his sun-bleached hair, the Stone Barns field foreman gave a lesson on erosion prevention.
“There’s a connection between chronic disease and nutrient deficiency,” Wolf explained, raising his voice over the groan of tractors. “The organic movement has taught us what shouldn’t be in our food — pesticides, fungicides. But the next phase of education has to be an understanding of what micronutrients the soil needs, but lacks.”Wolf bent down and fingered traces of added sulfur in the soil to make his point. After planting two varieties of broccoli, he led the teachers through the fields, talking about crop rotation and nontoxic weed control.
Several teachers noted that they plant vegetable gardens in the spring and that the children aren’t there to reap the rewards when the crops are harvested in the summer. Wolf suggested planting carrots or spinach in late October for a February or March harvest. “Simple cold frames,” he said, demonstrating how to use piping and plastic to build hoop houses. “This would be a good science lesson,” Borchert pointed out. Student farmers who grow food this way would learn a lot about temperature fluctuation and how it affects plants, he explained.
After the field trip, teachers collected eggs and picked fresh chard and salad greens. They cooked frittatas for lunch. In the afternoon, they learned about sheep and pasture rotation, composting and pig rearing. The daylong training left the teachers sweaty, but inspired. Two educators from New Jersey vowed to form a social network to share resources on ideas and farming. A packet given out by Stone Barns included resource tools on animal vocabulary, vegetable crops, composting, and a primer on bees.
“Days like these are great,” said Borchert. “They immerse us in a culture that is consumed with making the world a better, healthier place, and that gives us the energy we need to pass along the message.”
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