2018-05-03 / Front Page

Planting Seeds for Sustainability

By Amy Martin

Justin Apitalnik, Colin, Aaron Sherman (first grade teacher) plant a garden in raised beds at Pell. (Photo by Jen Carter) Justin Apitalnik, Colin, Aaron Sherman (first grade teacher) plant a garden in raised beds at Pell. (Photo by Jen Carter) Whistle while you work. Well, not exactly, but the 35 volunteers building community gardens at Pell Elementary School on April 29 were pretty close, even as periods of driving rain accompanied their installation.

The school and Aquidneck Community Table (ACT) have teamed up for a new gardening initiative for the Pell’s eight first-grade classes. Aaron Sherman, the head first-grade teacher on the project, has led the charge in an effort to introduce and teach sustainability to the students.

Sherman believes the gardens blend seamlessly with the life sciences unit in the first-grade curriculum, as planting is one of the main subjects studied. The nine beds are located outside the kindergarten classroom windows, in order to foster excitement in the students who will be the first-grade caretakers the following year.

This spring, the first-graders will plant vegetables, butterfly attracting plants and pollinators, and tend to the beds by watering and weeding. When the current kindergarten class become first-graders in the fall, the gardens will be bequeathed to them by the previous year’s first-graders during a ceremony.

“This year’s kindergarten will be the first-graders that harvest this spring’s [vegetation] and then they’ll pay it forward and plant for the following fall,” Sherman said.

Sherman was motivated to implement the gardening program from past experiences, and the school already had a connection with ACT through a waste management and food waste project.

“I came from Underwood before Pell was built,” he said. “We had a beautiful community garden that we all utilized. We were outside doing things with it, exploring together. I felt like that was something that was kind of lacking here. We had a little bit of money from some grants, a bit of momentum going, and we teamed up [with ACT] and here we are.”

The program goes beyond the care of the vegetation. Chartwells, the school’s lunch company, is interested in using the produce that is grown by the students, in the school lunches, providing a further example of sustainability for the students.

Pell Elementary is the first school that ACT has teamed up with to install and help maintain community gardens. “It would be great to get this program up and running really well and have it become an example for other schools,” said Kelsey Fitzgibbons, ACT manager.

Nikki Vazquez, another ACT manager, will ensure that the school’s gardens are cared for throughout the summer. ACT will be looking for volunteers to help with the summer efforts and hopes that some of the Pell parents will volunteer to care for the beds. Vasquez believes the current enthusiasm for gardening is due to a recent nationwide initiative. “Having Michelle Obama in the White House for eight years, and [her] talking about kids growing food and being active outdoors has had a big impact,” she said.

ACT is the result of a January 2016 merger of three organizations: Aquidneck Growers’ Market, Island Commons Food Initiative and Sustainable Aquidneck. ACT’s stated goal is to strengthen the island’s food system; to support the local economy and expand access to fresh healthy food for all; and to act directly to grow more food, preserve open space, and teach life skills.

“This year is the first year we have a waiting list at all of the garden locations,” Fitzgibbons said.

Bevan Linsley, executive director for ACT, said she was thrilled, but not surprised by the volunteer turnout. “Many are friends of our family [ACT], students from Salve Regina University, alumni of Boston College and the U.S. Navy Supply Corp School,” she said.

“Because of the impact of learning how to grow food, it being a lifelong skill, if kids grow vegetables, they eat vegetables,” she said. “It has the capacity to change a family’s diet, because if the kids ask if they can have something, parents will cook it.”

It is hoped that the collaboration between Pell and ACT will inspire other area schools to implement gardening programs.

“[Students] learn skills of stewardship of the earth. In so many ways it’s really beneficial,” Linsley said. “We have this notion that there should be a garden at every school and a garden in every community that wants one. If we were able to tie all those pieces together it would make an important foundation for building a healthier food system than the one we have right now.”

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