Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIII, No. 29
Wednesday, July 22, 2009
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All in a Day’s Work

(Photo by Dilshanie Perera)
HOW DOES YOUR GARDEN GROW?: In the case of the Princeton School Garden Cooperative, quite well. Sustainability Coordinator and Garden Co-op founder Diane Landis (right) and intern Sophie Sarkar admire the fruits (and vegetables) of their labor, and that of countless middle school students, at the John Witherspoon Middle School garden.

Dilshanie Perera

Bringing people together around issues that matter has been a longtime passion for Diane Landis. The 17-year Princeton resident formed the Princeton School Garden Cooperative three years ago with a few others, with the goal of using these spaces as sites for hands-on teaching, and as a way to reconnect students with the process of food production and the earth. Now, all of the public schools in town have their own garden. Ms. Landis is also Princeton’s own Sustainability Coordinator, a new position designed to organize residents in town toward greener practices through collaborative projects, education, and outreach.

The thing I’m learning about the gardens is that they’re the great unifiers. Everybody wants a garden, or has had a garden, or their dad’s had a garden, or their mother’s had a garden.

We were in a meeting with Mayor Miller the other day, and halfway through we got into the topic of gardens, and he said, “I remember the Victory gardens.” And I said, “Of course!” That is huge.

The Garden Cooperative is under the Community Plan for sustainability, though it started before the community plan was developed. What makes sustainability is that we can grow our own food, teach our kids to grow their own food, involve the learning experience and hands-on learning in that process, and feed them that food in the cafeteria and have them take it home. There’s a beautiful funding arrangement that makes it even more sustainable.

I think everybody understands a garden. That’s one of the reasons our project has been successful. When we started we were moms at schools doing gardens. There was a courtyard at Littlebrook [Elementary School], that was kind of unused and a friend of mine said: I know you’re starting this garden, and I know a mother over here starting a garden, and Dorothy Mullen has had gardens forever; you all should come together.

So we had a meeting, and in the course of that meeting we realized we could share information. I said the word “cooperative,” and we ran with it. Pretty soon we were marching to a single drum beat. It started with the gardens, and people loved the gardens, and now we’re looking to move toward some more policy-type changes in the way the food is presented in the school cafeteria.

There’s a garden in every public school, and they’re all different. Dorothy [Mullen] is doing a lot of innovative work, including involving gym teachers, so that working in the garden becomes a physical activity for the kids. She does a ROY G BIV [color spectrum] garden for the kindergardeners, a butterfly garden for the first graders, colonial herb gardens for the third graders, and this is all linked to what they’re studying.

Science teacher Chad Lebo helped with the garden clubs and environmental clubs after school, and he did a lot of innovative things, but he told one story, which I loved:

Kale grows really beautifully around this region and in our garden, and he had the kids cut the kale. He brought it in and cut it up into really small pieces and put it under a microscope, and then took a magnet and found it was attracted to the magnet because of all the iron in the kale.

Granted, he also takes the sun chokes and cooks them up in class for students to taste!

What has moved me throughout my whole career is to bring ideas home and make connections. And that’s where the gardens come in. Kids put their hands into the soil, they’re connected to the earth again, they’re seeing the cycles, and it wakes them up about what they’re learning.

I don’t think there’s any reason in the world that the curriculum that we’re teaching about health, nutrition, and the earth should stop at the doors to the cafeteria. We’re strongly advocating that the schools look toward local farm-to-school efforts, that they get rid of a lot of the styrofoam they use, and that the school lunch becomes a way to honor our food, even by slowing it down.

There’s a process, an awakening, that we hope will happen.

The opportunities in schools are so great. I have three children of my own, and they just absorb this. When I come home from the grocery they ask me: “Is this local?” I mean literally, it’s the first thing! From a nine-year-old! Or they’ll ask: “Which store, Mom?” or “Where are your bags?” because it just becomes habit.

Living A Sustainable Life

I feel like [sustainability] should be a part of how we live our lives. We have solar panels, and I stopped using napkins years ago and I won’t have any paper products except for toilet paper in our house. I love my bike. I lock my bike; I don’t lock my car, which tells you what’s most important!

As for my own personal trajectory: I am a writer, so I’ve written for newspapers. In college I was a Planned Parenthood volunteer, and even in high school I did service work. After college, I worked for the Washington Post newspaper, then I freelanced for a while, then I worked at United Way of America — and ran a national youth initiative encouraging young people to get involved in community service. I wrote a book for them and worked on a diversity initiative getting Asian, Black, Hispanic, and Native American Indians involved on boards of United Ways across the country. Then I ran an Americorps program in New Jersey, before working for a local paper. I also teach yoga, so it gives me an important base regarding how to live and serve and give back. And it’s all fun! I love organizing.

When my kids first went to Littlebrook, I organized around my kitchen table. A group of us got together to discuss what has now become integrated into the way the school operates. Every kindergardener through fifth grader has an issue area that they do service under. It’s really owned by the school, and they do a big assembly, and they have service notebooks that they take from grade to grade, and they write in them about their experience. The project started around my kitchen table because I felt like it was missing from the school, and now my kids don’t even know that I was part of it, which is what I love. They took ownership of it.

For example, in kindergarden at Littlebrook, the kids do some chores and make some money at home, and they take that money and buy cereal, and they take it in a bus on a trip to HomeFront, so they get the full experience. And they learn about being homeless. It’s neat stuff.

Toward Better Environmental Practices

Two years ago, the Princeton Environmental Commission under Wendy Kaczerski wrote a grant to start this project, and they gathered about 100 people together to talk about what they were concerned about. That led to the formation of the four [Sustainable Princeton working] groups and a 200 page community plan. That plan is big, and really detailed.

I’m focused on the residential piece mostly. The approach that I’m taking with the assistance of Wendy Kaczerski and her vision and that of whoever else we can draw into the discussion, is home energy — specifically looking at home energy, but more broadly asking: How do you change people’s minds? And how do you change people’s minds about really personal issues like lifestyle? — which to me is fascinating.

You can’t be — nor would any of us like it if it were — preachy. It has to be a conversation, which is how we’re approaching it. So, we’re beginning a conversation with Princeton residents and asking them to bring their ideas to the table.

The Eco-Parties are the way we’re doing it. It’s a really informal, casual, comfortable opportunity for people to come together. And they’re fun!

At the first one there were about 10 middle school students, and three or four moms and they are collecting bottle caps, because you can’t recycle bottle caps, at least in this area. They took a family pledge, so they can track how they’re using energy at home, and they’ve been asked to do the Earthlab carbon calculator [], and they’re going to come back together in about 3 months to compare.

At the second one, we had three Princeton University professors, and a Temple professor and we really discussed things specific to homes. Afterward, I received three e-mails saying things like: I got on my bike for the first time in a long time; I took my bottle caps to Littlebrook Elementary; we just recycled a computer that was - as she called it - “gerbil-powered” from the eighties.

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