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by intern Lila Wilmerding

Among other organizations, Maple Avenue School in Newark, New Jersey has partnered with Slow Food Northern New Jersey to integrate growing vegetables, healthy eating, and fitness into the everyday curriculum. Since the beginning of this past school year, the chapter has worked with the school to bring grow boxes to classrooms and organize lectures and visits from farmers.

This “Growing Minds” project—which includes sprouting mung beans and keeping diaries of the classroom grow boxes—is fueled in large part by enthusiastic teachers like Natasha Parilla, who has worked hard to bring food and gardening into the school’s K-8 classrooms. Before the program started, the teachers attended a half-day training session on using the grow boxes as a classroom tool and then worked together to integrate what they had learned into the state-mandated curricula. According to Margaret Noon, leader of the Slow Food Northern New Jersey chapter, this connection to people who know and understand the school system has been fundamental to the success of the program.

Recently, Newark Beth Israel’s Kid Fit Program, Scholastic Books, and Slow Food Northern New Jersey collaborated with Maple Avenue School to organize an event called Eat, Grow, & Go. During the course of a day, over 500 students at Maple Avenue were taught to grow potatoes in buckets by a nearby organic farmer, learned about egg production from a local kilt-wearing farmer while passing live chickens around the classroom, and sampled local organic carrots, salad turnips, and potatoes.

It’s hard to believe that such a well-developed project has come together in just one school year. But Slow Food Northern New Jersey is not finished yet—Maple Avenue’s success has caught the attention of the Newark Superintendent of Schools, hopefully paving the way for similar programs at other schools in the area.