In the middle of a neighborhood of strangers sat an empty lot filled with garbage. The lot looked like no place for a garden. But one day, a young girl with a handful of bean seeds and nowhere to plant them took a chance and cleared a small space among the garbage. She dug into the soil and dropped in her seeds.
Soon, her neighbors followed her lead. One planted tomatoes in hopes of winning back a lost love. Another thought he could make a few extra bucks with a crop of lettuce. With a little hard work and some conversation, the lot became something beautiful, a garden. And the garden became like a bridge, bringing together the people who had lived so close for so long without talking.
This is the story teacher Sue Miller has begun to read with her fifth grade class at the West Tisbury School. It is a story which soon, Mrs. Miller will see come to life before her very eyes.
This story began late last fall when a group of Martha’s Vineyard parents and teachers gathered to discuss Farm to School, a movement which connects schools with nearby farms to serve healthy school meals, educate students about nutrition and support local farmers.
As the meeting progressed, a faction from West Tisbury got to thinking about their own school and how the students there could make a deeper connection to the farms and growers and local food around them. They thought how, like the girl in Mrs. Miller’s story, it would be so nice to have a handful of bean seeds and somewhere to plant them.
The West Tisbury school has no functioning kitchen. The lunches served there each afternoon are prepared at the high school and delivered each morning. The school has no cafeteria, no communal space for the students to come together over food. But the school does have a courtyard, empty and unused. Like the vacant lot in the story, it looks like no place for a garden. Yet.
The school was constructed around the courtyard. There is no way to access it except through school hallways; classroom windows look out on it. “It’s been there since the school was built,” Island pianist and West Tisbury school parent Jeremy Berlin said this week. “But it has been lying fallow for a long time. The kids don’t go out there.” On Friday, Mr. Berlin will take a seat at his piano behind frontman Johnny Hoy at a concert fundraiser for the garden project.
By this time next month, wheelbarrows will be rolling through the school hallways on their way to the courtyard. The leaves and the weeds will be raked away and cold frames will be built instead. By this time next month, the courtyard will be on its way to becoming a garden.
“It’s really going faster than I thought it would now,” said Nicole Cabot, a West Tisbury parent who has been active in the project since the first Farm to School meeting this fall. Over the course of the winter, the group has worked with teachers, local farmers, artists and landscapers to map out the garden, plan how it will be used and begin to select the seeds which will be planted there this spring and for many springs to come. Next month, the group will host two community events, one in the middle of the month to prep the garden and another, at the month’s end, to raise the garden beds. There will be nine beds in all, one for each grade. “People are actually going to plant things, rather than read about doing it,” Mrs. Miller said. “Anything that’s real just helps them so much more. Then, they’ll come back next year and we’ll be able to see what has grown and changed.”
Both the teachers at the school and the parents behind the scenes envision the garden as an outdoor classroom for teachers of all subjects and students of all ages. Before school lets out this year, the kindergarten students will plant flower seeds in their garden bed. When they return in the fall as first graders, the flowers will be there to greet them. Middle school science classes will come outside to study the life cycle of plants, to test the pH balance of the soil and to check on the tanks, which will collect rain water to irrigate the garden. The vegetables and flowers outside will be marked with both their English and Spanish names and art classes will head outside for a lesson in still life painting. “It’s really limitless what can happen with even a small garden,” Mrs. Cabot said. “We are an agricultural community,” she continued. “West Tisbury is an agricultural community and getting back to these roots is really important to these kids.”
As it is in the rest of the country, the Farm to School movement is taking shape in different ways around the Island. The Tisbury School is investigating how to improve their composting and recycling programs and the high school culinary arts department earlier this winter hosted a dinner for the community cooked and served by the students and prepared with primarily local ingredients. Another similar meal is already in the works for later this spring. And, this summer, the Island Grown Initiative will host a summer institute to help Island teachers plan to incorporate local food and farming endeavors into their curriculum. “There’s a trickle down effect,” said West Tisbury principal Michael A. Halt. “As students learn more about locally grown food and the value of better eating habits, they will start to be better eaters and hopefully better consumers.”
In the coming weeks and months, those involved hope the garden will bring together not just the school community, but the town and Island communities as well. Farmers will lend their expert advice, the agricultural society has donated some equipment and Mrs. Cabot hopes the garden club will come on board to mentor the students. And on Friday, all are invited to the benefit concert to learn more about the project and show their support. Johnny Hoy and his Bluefish will take to the stage uncharacteristically early — the music starts at 7 p.m. — at the agricultural hall in West Tisbury. The event is free, but a donation of $7 per person, or $20 per family is suggested. The money raised will benefit not only the garden, but a kitchen restoration project and book collection drive at the school.
The next farm to school meeting for the community is on Tuesday, April 15, at 7 p.m. at Island Co- housing in West Tisbury.