April 26, 2023

Gardens Cooperative Kicks Off Pilot Program with Public Schools

GOOD FOOD AND WELL-BEING: Cooks and gardens team members in the Princeton Public Schools (PPS) teaching kitchens, from left: Chef Elisabeth Quatrano, Faculty Advisor Janet Gaudino, Chef Marilyn Besner, and PPS Food Systems Literacy Coordinator Tomia MacQueen. Not pictured: Faculty Advisor Betsey Valenza and Master Gardner Debbie Gries. The Princeton Public Schools (PPS) are looking forward to good food and an enriched curriculum, as PPS collaborates with Princeton School Gardens in a year-long pilot program coordinated by MacQueen. (Photo courtesy ofPrinceton School Gardens)

By Donald Gilpin

Coordinated by educator and master gardener Tomia MacQueen, Princeton Public Schools (PPS) and Princeton School Garden Cooperative (PSGC) last week kicked off a collaborative one-year pilot program “to optimize untapped campus resources for illustrating and amplifying curriculum,” according to a PSGC press release.

“We need to educate our students and give them a well-rounded way of thinking in terms of their food and their lifestyle in stewarding the planet,” said MacQueen, who specializes in edible gardens and is the founder of Gardening for Life (Love, Inspiration, Faith, and Empowerment) and Wildflower Farm in Pennington.

She continued, “I want to get our kids excited about food again. I want them to be able to walk this garden space and be able to graze, to have a grazing menu, where they can go and enjoy fresh food and really understand ‘make it your normal.’ Food shouldn’t be something that you always just buy in the store. I would love for kids to go home and start a garden in their back yard, start something small that’s going to plant seeds to last a lifetime.”

Delayed since 2020 by the COVID-19 pandemic, the pilot program addresses the district goal of inclusivity and equity and the New Jersey Climate Education mandate. It also draws on a growing body of research that links connection to the natural world with resilience and well-being, and emphasizes the importance of food choices and their effects on the lifelong health of people and the planet.

In her role as coordinator, MacQueen will work behind the scenes engaging faculty and staff in using school food, water, and the facilities and grounds on PPS campuses as tools to illustrate and amplify curriculum and to nurture the well-being of the student body, according to the press release.

PPS Science Supervisor Joy Barnes-Johnson, who will work with MacQueen on the program, noted that the district plans to embed this program in the curriculum and to establish it as a model for other schools.

“Food has myriad roles in our lives, and it connects to nearly every academic subject,” said Barnes-Johnson. “Our food system affects and is affected by the environment and biodiversity, the economy, the political system, public health, and personal well-being — and joy and robustness. We want to develop this program so that we can connect and strengthen our own district, and then share everything we’ve learned with other districts to connect and strengthen them.”

First-year priorities for the pilot program include: restarting and expanding the Garden State on Your Plate farm-to-table initiative, which brings chefs and farmers into school
cafeterias during lunchtime where they serve up samples of locally grown and simply prepared produce; developing and implementing with the community’s water flow experts the capture and conservation of water for irrigation of each school’s edible garden and for plantings of native perennials; and facilitating, alongside Princeton Environmental Commission and other nonprofits, micro food forest plantings and maintenance that connect Princeton Middle School and Princeton High School and support biodiversity, pollinators, and habitat creation.

The press release goes on to accentuate that the success of this program “for students, and by extension, for their parents and community members, will result in the development of lifelong skills that foster well-being and individual agency, natural systems stewardship, and the associated pleasures of palate, plate, and people.”

MacQueen, who moved to Pennington with her family five years ago and opened the Wildflower Farm commercially just a month before Covid hit, reflected on her role in leading this program with PSGC and PPS. She talked about using the schools’ gardens as curriculum points in all subjects for the students.

“All of our lives we will eat, sleep and drink, and those are the building blocks of our bodies, our wellness, our mental health, and our physical health,” she said.

She emphasized the importance of food to all aspects of health and life from before birth all the way through school, college, and adulthood.  “It used to be that every home had an edible garden. It was just a normal part of life, but we have lost contact with our food and that has become a big problem,” she said.  “The thing about starting young is that a child who grows up with their hands in the soil knowing where their food comes from never forgets that.”

She and her husband have two teenaged children and, she said, they have told them, “‘If you never want to raise another chicken and you never want to plant another seed, at least you will know how to feed yourself by the time you leave home.’”

She continued, “If they choose to go to the grocery store for most of their lives, then that’s their choice, but it won’t be because they’re incapable, and when they do go to the grocery store they will be able to make healthy choices, which I think is more important than anything else.”

MacQueen, who holds degrees in dance and education, fine and performing arts, is on the boards of Friends of Hopewell Valley Open Space and the Northeast Organic Farming Association-NJ, and is a member of Governance for the Ujamaa Cooperative Farming Alliance.

A longtime dance teacher, she talked about food, music, and dance as “the three connectors.”

“I tell people, ‘When the food is good enough, the isms stop,’” she said.  “When the music or the food or the dance is good enough, the issues kind of fade away and people enjoy the moment. You can sit down over a plate of food, and now you can have the hard questions. It’s hard to be angry at somebody you’re sharing a plate of food with. It just is.”