January 17, 2018

Princeton School Gardens Cooperative Gets “Top Tomato” Award From State

FARM TO SCHOOL: It is programs like this one, which brought Stacey Moore, center, from Terhune Orchards to Johnson Park Elementary School last October, that have won Princeton School Gardens Cooperative coveted “Top Tomato” status from the New Jersey Department of Agriculture. This picture was taken last October, when Moore brought Empire and Cortland apples from the orchard for students to sample. The kids also got a chance to season the apples to their own taste.

By Anne Levin

When it comes to the subject of food literacy, Princeton — specifically, the Princeton School Gardens Cooperative — earns high marks. The 12-year-old nonprofit was recently awarded “Top Tomato” status by the New Jersey Department of Agriculture for its work familiarizing local school children with locally-grown produce.

Despite the playful title, being named “Top Tomato” is an honor taken seriously. “It’s important to a tiny organization like ours to get this recognition from the state Department of Agriculture,” said Fran McManus, co-founder of the cooperative. “We’ve been around for more than 10 years. It is really rewarding to see that the state has taken this idea seriously, of connecting kids in our school districts to issues not only about taste, but about understanding that farming is a really important part of our state economy.”

Princeton School Gardens Cooperative is the tenth organization to be honored with the coveted award. Last year’s winner was Hopewell Elementary School principal David Friedrich, for efforts including twice weekly organic, homemade lunch, for students.

Founded by McManus, Dorothy Mullen, Karla Cook, and Diane Hackett in 2006, the Princeton cooperative began with Garden State on Your Plate (GSOYP), establishing edible gardens at all of the public schools and getting parents involved in the effort. Originally, the organization had to raise money to pay for gardens and garden educators. But Princeton Public Schools now pays the tab, “a huge affirmation of the value of the garden programs,” McManus said.

Current projects are the GSOYP programs in all four of Princeton’s elementary schools, the JW Cooks and Gardens Club at John Witherspoon Middle School, and JW Garden Educator, also at the middle school. Funders are Whole Earth Center, The Bent Spoon, McCaffrey’s, Princeton University Campus Dining, Church & Dwight Employee Giving Fund, and Heartland Payment Systems.

GSOYP visits the elementary schools four times a year, in fall and spring. A specific fruit or vegetable is singled out each month. While local chefs used to be hired to prepare tasting samples and talk to the children, school food service company NutriServe Food Management now makes the samples.

At lunchtime, students go to the cafeterias where parent volunteers serve them small portions of simple recipes prepared by NutriServe, using locally grown produce. “Children taste the produce raw, with salt, with lemon, and prepared roasted, boiled, braised, or with other ingredients,” McManus said. “Our guest farmer or chef asks the students to note the flavors, textures, and temperatures and we ask for their observations about how salt, lemon, and cooking change the flavor and texture of the produce.”

Each school gets posters with facts about the featured fruit or vegetable and words that describe its flavor, color, and texture.

McManus is enthusiastic about the after-school cooking program at the middle school. “Cooking is back in the curriculum, and that’s great,” she said. “It had been dropped for a number of years and the kitchens were sitting unused. But it’s now part of food sciences.”

She has seen other signs of progress. “I have heard from numerous parents that their kids come home and say, ‘I want beets for dinner tonight,’ which is funny and so gratifying,” she said. “And the other day I ran into some kindergartners at Community Park School. They said to me, ‘We want to taste something!’”