A group of dedicated educators and students is turning Emerson Middle School into a state-of-the-art urban food production center with both indoor and outdoor growing gardens.
Remarkably, in only four months the indoor garden has yielded nearly 70 pounds of fresh produce, all grown hydroponically using no soil in the school’s basement.
“This project is an important learning tool, something that isn’t theoretical, something the students can touch and feel,” explains Emerson Middle School Principal Mike Cirone.
The outdoor garden began several years ago when Mr. DiDomenico and his summer students began pulling weeds and beautifying the grounds behind the school that are now a fully functioning community garden.
The innovative indoor garden, where all produce is grown without using any soil, is funded by two grants from the New Jersey Department of Agriculture’s Health Communities program that were secured by Charles Webster, the district’s Director of Grants and Innovative Programs.
The gardens have yielded approximately one dozen different types of vegetables, including several types of lettuce, cilantro, tomatoes, kale, endive, string beans, squash, snap peas and basil. All of the food is distributed at no cost to students and Union City families.
“This is urban farming that is truly making a difference in the lives of our students and in our community,” says Mr. Webster, who noted that plans are also underway to create similar programs at the Edison and Wilson Schools.
Currently, there are about 15 student volunteers who work in the gardens, under the direction of Science Teachers Laura Kushnir and Hilda Ventura and Science Supervisor Frederick Hurtado.
Ms. Ventura notes that one student, who wasn’t “exactly a model student,” has shown marked improvement in academics and personal behavior since becoming an “urban farmer.”
The gardens are also being integrated into the curriculum, not only in the sciences but in other subject areas as well.
Krystle Santaniello, Supervisor of English Language Arts, has students keeping a log and writing about their experiences in the gardens. “Some of these students have never left Union City and now they’re exposed to a whole new environment.”
Mr. Cirone says the gardens have become a “sanctuary” in the otherwise very busy school.
Jesus Gutierrez, an 8th grader who is the unofficial student “Mayor” of the gardens, couldn’t agree more with Mr. Cirone’s assessment.
“It’s calm and quite in here, so it’s easier to learn,” says Jesus of the indoor garden. Jesus has become so enamored of hydroponic gardening that he is planning to start a small one at home.
Mr. Cirone says the curriculum integration will accelerate next year with teachers receiving professional development training and chefs from Chartwell’s, the district’s food service provider, scheduled to provide cooking demonstrations for students and parents using produce grown in the school.
Superintendent of Schools Silvia Abbato credits Mr. Cirone and his staff and Mr. Webster for “their commitment to the environment and their commitment to doing whatever is necessary to initiate and grow this innovative program.”
To view more photos of the Indoor/Outdoor Garden click here