In the children’s books we have been reading with Island kids this month to celebrate pumpkins (November’s Harvest of the Month), the pumpkins all look much the same: round, orange and a bit bigger than a bowling ball, the classic pumpkin look. But check out the 71 pumpkin varieties offered by Johnny’s Seeds, or the Seed Saver’s Exchange, or any number of other seed purveyors, and prepare to be amazed at the pumpkin family’s wild array of colors, shapes, uses and sizes.

Writing back in September, I bemoaned the lack of crop diversity feeding our world today — and it’s true that only 103 crop plants and seven livestock species provide most of the calories eaten across the world, while many thousands of plant and animal species humans used for food have gone extinct in the last few decades.

But there is a parallel trend afoot, exemplified by all those beautiful pumpkin varieties in the seed catalogs. In a community-spirited, grassroots way over the course of the past 25 years, farmers, gardeners, ranchers, chefs, seedsmen and seedswomen and others have been bringing back heirloom food crops and heritage breeds of animals that were on the verge of extinction 30 years ago.

Last week the wonderful Gary Paul Nabhan — writer, seed saver, activist, scientist, storyteller and MacArthur genius award recipient among other things — came to the Vineyard to talk with Island Grown Schools staff and a small group of farmers, growers, and school teachers about the movement to restore agricultural biodiversity and, in his words, recover place-based foods. In 1984, he said, there were only 99 vegetable, grain, legume, tuber and herb varieties listed in North American seed catalogs. In 2004, there were 8,494 varieties, and today an uncountable number more, as the internet opens up new opportunities for buying and selling seeds at every scale. (For more on this, look up the new booklet Gary edited, Conservation You Can Taste, published by Slow Food USA and soon free for downloading online.)

We see this resurgence firsthand in the farms and gardens here on the Vineyard. From Morning Glory to Native Earth Teaching Farm to the Farm Institute to Mermaid Farm and Dairy, our local farmers and gardeners are a part of the global movement to restore traditional food crops and preserve their flavors, colors, growing habits and histories in the communities they have often been a part of for generations.

Students we work with in Vineyard schools get to be a part of this movement, too. Not only do we grow many heirloom fruit and vegetable varieties in school gardens and share stories about our local agricultural history, we also are now growing heirloom New England grains with the support and mentorship of Glenn Roberts from Anson Mills.

This year students grew two heirloom pumpkin varieties in their school gardens, and throughout November we led a slew of curriculum-tied pumpkin activities. Together with IGS staff, Ms. Clements’s first grade class at the Tisbury School did a Seed to Table unit on pumpkins. They scooped out and roasted seeds from locally grown pumpkins, and used the guts to make pumpkin bread. While eating their special bread and seeds, they talked about what they’d learned about pumpkins. “They grow on vines; you can eat their seeds and their flesh; they get planted in the spring or summer and are ready to pick in the fall.” And most importantly: “Pumpkins are delicious!”

Hundreds of students and school staff members at all Island schools experienced this last lesson in November, as cafeteria directors found inventive ways to incorporate pumpkins into school meals. The offerings included pumpkin white bean soup, pumpkin waffles, pumpkin bread pudding and roasted pumpkin seeds on salad bars. Harvest of the Month guest chef Robin Forte traveled to five Island schools offering our featured recipe this month, pumpkin smoothies, which were a huge hit with the kids, who flocked back for seconds, thirds and fourths. You can try the recipe yourself by downloading it free from our website (

Noli Taylor is director of Island Grown Schools, a farm-to-school program that operates under the nonprofit Island Grown Initiative.