Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXV, No. 40
Wednesday, October 5, 2011
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How Does The Riverside School Garden Grow? It’s Exemplary, Say Those Familiar With It

Ellen Gilbert

Riverside Elementary School enjoyed the distinction of being New Jersey Secretary of Agriculture Douglas H. Fisher’s first stop in a kick-off event for the first “Jersey Fresh Farm to School Week.”

“You were ahead of your time,” observed Mr. Fisher of the gardens that originated, according to Principal Bill Cirullo, “about 15 or 20 years ago.”

“Everyone here is a phenomenal resource for other districts around the state,” added Mr. Fisher, speaking to a tour group that consisted of other state officials, representatives from the Princeton School District, Princeton officials, and local volunteers.

Mr. Cirullo concurred, offering a brief history of “our outdoor classroom” and acknowledging “the wonderful people with all this knowledge.” He described the garden as “part of the culture of the school,” where people invest time and energy and “exercise their passions.”

Farm to School Week, designated by Governor Christie and the State Legislature, will be observed through the last week in September. Its intent, according to the state Department of Agriculture, is to “promote the state’s agricultural industry and encourage children and their families to increase their consumption of fresh produce. The week also seeks to educate children about the health benefits of eating fruits and vegetables and show the connection between a healthy diet and success in school.”

Through the Farm to School program, New Jersey schools can access more than 100 types of Jersey Fresh produce grown in the Garden State. Opportunities exist for state farmers to provide agricultural products to school food service departments throughout the growing season. The object of serving healthy meals in school cafeterias is “to improve student nutrition, provide health and nutrition education opportunities that will last a lifetime, as well as support local farmers.”

School Superintendent Judy Wilson described the Riverside effort as a “bellwether,” and said that she looked forward to seeing it lead to more collaborations. Currently, Princeton school gardens send vegetables, flowers, and herbs to the Crisis Ministry Food Pantry, and the Bent Spoon turns its herbs into sorbet. The school garden effort, which is represented at every Princeton public school, does not use district funds.

Garden Artist in Residence Dorothy Mullen (aka “Dorothy Gardener”) led the tour, describing details like the wide-leafed plants in the butterfly garden that butterflies use as a place to settle and lay their eggs. Other gardens include a raspberry patch, vegetable and flower beds, an herb garden, a tea garden, and a model of an 18th century medicinal garden. A “bug observatory” allows students to lift a rock, log, or plank “to see who lives below.”

Fourth grade teacher Terry McGovern was introduced to the group as “a convert” who was, at first skeptical about the notion of literally moving outside of the traditional classroom, but is now an avid fan of the gardens.

The answer to the question of whether schoolchildren are eating more vegetables as a result of the school garden program was a resounding “yes.”

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