Federal grant could help school garden grow on Shelter Island

In the beginning, the Shelter Island School Garden began with a ground breaking and in a short two seasons has come a long way. Now the district hopes to share in a grant that would help all such projects here and throughout the North Fork. (Credit: Joann Kirkland)

In the beginning, the Shelter Island School Garden began with a ground breaking and in a short two seasons has come a long way. Now the district hopes to share in a grant that would help all such projects here and throughout the North Fork. (Credit: JoAnn Kirkland)

Sometimes the fertilizer needed to help a garden grow is green: the color of the money used to purchase seeds, gardening supplies and the educational materials students need to learn what works and what doesn’t.

School districts from Riverhead to Orient and Shelter Island combined forces recently to seek $100,000 in grant money from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm to School program to enhance their educational garden programs. 

Each district received information about the grants, but it was David Gamberg, Greenport and Southold superintendent, who had the vision that forming a consortium would enhance the area’s chances of getting money.

“We’re trying to make the case that we are a region that is ripe to get this,” he said. “There’s about $350,000 for the entire state, so it’s very competitive.”

Lucy Senesac of Sang Lee Farms in Peconic, a liaison between North Fork school districts and local farmers, recently came across the federal grant opportunity and helped the districts with the joint application process. The monies will be awarded later this month.

Ms. Senesac, a Mattituck High School alumna who began working at the organic farm five years ago after graduating from college, said she enjoys finding new ways to build relationships with the farming community, along with teaching the area’s youth about organic living. Two years ago, she launched a new children’s farming summer camp.

“This is a way for me to help people — by feeding them healthy food and teaching them about nutrition,” Ms. Senesac said. “That’s a great feeling at the end of the day — even more so now, with kids.”

If approved, the grant will allow the districts to coordinate educational programs between schools and farmers, train cafeteria staff and purchase equipment, and create summer programs and internships for students to learn how to cook with fresh produce.

Lucy Senesac of Sang Lee Farms picks carrots late last month at Southold Elementary School’s organic garden. She’s helping local schools collaborate with farmers on school garden curriculum. (Credit: Jen Nuzzo)

Lucy Senesac of Sang Lee Farms picks carrots late last month at Southold Elementary School’s organic garden. She’s helping local schools collaborate with farmers on school garden curriculum. (Credit: Jen Nuzzo)

Shelter Island joined up with Greenport, Southold, Mattituck-Cutchogue, Riverhead and Oysterponds in what became a fast and furious effort to get a single application filed, with Ms. Senesac’s help, in time for consideration.

Shelter Island Superintendent Leonard Skuggevik described it as a “great opportunity to get together and help out the community in an educational situation.”

That the districts were combining forces got the attention of State Senator Kenneth LaValle (R-Port Jefferson), a major proponent of cooperative efforts, and he wrote a letter in support of the consortium’s approach to seeking the grant, Mr. Skuggevik said.

While the superintendent was unsure how much of the grant Shelter Island might get if the consortium is successful, he already has plans for how to spend money that may be forthcoming.

Some funds would go directly into plants and supplies for the school garden. Other money would support enhanced training for the kitchen staff and kitchen supplies to make creative use of the vegetables grown in the garden. And additional dollars would be earmarked for enhancing student education on school gardens.

Shelter Island’s garden was founded in 2013 when parents Victoria Weslek and Sarah Shepherd brought the idea to former superintendent Michael Hynes.

He was very enthusiastic about the idea and that enthusiasm has carried through with Mr. Skuggevik, academic administrator Jennifer Rylott and the custodial staff that has been integrally involved in getting the project off the ground, Ms. Weslek said.

Dr. Hynes told Ms. Weslek at the time that he believed parental involvement to be a key to building a successful school and she believes his words to be true. Food grown in the garden has been used in the school cafeteria and faculty members are using the garden as a teaching tool, she said.

In the beginning, it was mostly elementary school teachers and students who got involved with planting seeds in their classroom, nurturing them and finally planting them in the garden. They maintained the plants and helped to harvest them for use, Ms. Weslek said.

Her co-coordinator, Ms. Shepherd, an herbalist and beekeeper who still finds time for work in the garden, said the degree of support she and Ms. Weslek have received from everyone has been extensive. That doesn’t happen in all school districts, Ms. Shepherd said.

The community has been supportive in coming out for the annual Empty Bowls fundraiser that has provided money to help keep the program afloat.

This year, a number of secondary school teachers — science teachers Dan Williams and Sharon Gibbs, art teacher Stephanie Sareyani and special education teacher Janine Mahoney — have been particularly proactive in involving their students in the garden, Ms. Weslek said.

“I hope the garden can bridge the gap [between elementary an secondary students],” Ms. Shepherd said.

One thing the co-coordinators are learning is how to better delegate responsibilities to others.

Ms. Weslek admitted that failure to delegate resulted in poor maintenance of the garden during the summer months and she needs to bring in people who will help to keep the plants watered and the garden weeded at times when she and Ms. Shepherd aren’t available.

Another lesson students are learning is the effect weather has on the crops and they’re also exploring best methods for irrigating the garden, Ms. Weslek said.

They’re also learning how much can be done in a relatively small space, Ms. Shepherd said.

“A little money can go a long way with a school garden,” she added.

To date, the garden has produced kale, tomatoes, sugar snap peas, carrots, strawberries, peppers and radishes, Ms. Weslek said.

Going forward, various groups of students will be “adopting” areas in the garden to grow their own crops.

Another resource for the school has been the Sylvester Manor Farm and, following a two-day program Ms. Weslek and school nurse Mary Kanarvogel attended on the North Fork, they returned with ideas for further cultivating that relationship, working with farm manager Julia Trunzo.

Mr. Skuggevik, Ms. Weslek and Ms. Shepherd all used similar words in expressing optimism that their garden can become a model for other school districts to use in developing similar programs.

Additional reporting by Jen Nuzzo

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