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July 31, 2013

Growing Healthy Kids



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What did your kids have for lunch? A snack shack hot dog, chips and soda? The ubiquitious lunchable? PB&J on white bread with Yodels for dessert?

You'll find none of that at the i-Grow Summer Learning program in Springs where last Friday students dined on cold yogurt and cucumber soup, ratatouille, carrot salad with string beans, chicory, rice and beans, garlic bread with herb butter, and baked clams caught locally.

The clams were harvested locally and so were all the vegetables. And the veggies were not merely from a local source, they were from the camp's own garden, tended by the kids, picked by the kids, then cooked and served by them as well.

An initiative undertaken through Project MOST's Springs Seedlings program, i-Grow is designed to give low income kids access to fresh, local produce and an education about healthy food. Twenty percent of East Hampton students now live at poverty level, according to Tim Bryden, executive director of Project MOST -- that's not a statistic people expect when they think of the playground of the rich and famous.

Located on the grounds of Springs School, i-Grow's "farm" is comprised of an approximately 40'x30' plot boasting between 30 and 40 different species of vegetables, fruits, and herbs, Bryden informed. A greenhouse built with support from Springs Seedings founders -- Chef Joe Realmuto of Nick & Toni's and Brian Futerman from Foodies -- was also part of a tour last Friday afternoon. A peek inside revealed an abundance of plants, including a vine weighty with ripening tomatoes.

The i-Grow program, according to Bryden, is centered on the theme of food justice. "It's an effort to get people connected to fresh food." Some 58 children, ages eight to 12, are registered in the four week, educational program. Children whose family income is less than $40,000 per year attend for free; others pay a token stipend.

It's no ordinary summer camp. Besides working in the garden, kids receive math lessons as they track rainfall, practice cartography as they map the garden, and learn about world culture and economics. They get their Language Arts on with journal writing and reading about the food they eat.

The kids enjoy field trips, too . . . but we're not talking dry museum outings. They visited the East Hampton Farmer's Market and discussed bringing produce to market with the farmers. A trip to the town shellfish hatchery was part of a unit on local seafood that included special guest East Hampton Town Trustee Stephanie Talmage, who set up a mock clamming tableau so kids could test their skills with a clamrake.

Geography mixed with economics on Friday, Martha Stotzky, director of i-Grow and Springs Seedlings explained. "Today we mapped the journey of a banana." Students are fascinated to learn where food comes from and were astonished to find out that it isn't the grower who makes the most money from bananas, it's Chiquita. "We discuss food access and equity in the food production system," Stotzky reported.

And then they cook.

Chef Nina Friscia has been with the program for three years. A dozen kids at a time will do the cooking "for 50 of us," she said. The class is divided into groups so each group gets its shot preparing meals. Each Spring, Bryden said, the team plans out what they'll plant with an eye towards what can be turned into a healthy lunch. Looking over the bounty, as kids began serving up lunch to classmates, he exclaimed, "This is still amazing to me."

"Lots of the kids do eat things they've never had before," Friscia acknowledged. Some of the campers are reluctant to try new foods, but most are enthusiastic about new tastes. "They do love the cooking," she said. "It's exciting for them."

They're pretty fond of the gardening, too. A contingent of kids led a lively tour of the plot, posing for a photo among the raised beds and burgeoning bushes. "This is purslane, you think it's a weed, but it's the healthiest thing on earth," said one guide as he plucked a tiny plant and popped a tender leaf in his mouth. Eight year old Kevin Sumba laughed as he found a purple carrot and listed plants he could readily identify "Blackberries, beans, lettuce. Today we picked carrots . . . and we have sunflowers, too!"

Kenverly Munoz is going into seventh grade this fall. She's been an i-Grow student every year for the past three, since the program started. The hardest part about the program is "waiting for the raspberries to ripen. It's really tempting to just eat them, but if they're not ready, they're sour," she said, making a face.

In addition to offering enrichment to local children, Project MOST, the afterschool enrichment program, also provides jobs for area high school students. Emily Schutz, a junior at East Hampton High School, supervised the busy kids on Friday. Because the program is open to children at both Springs School and the East Hampton School District, it gives children from the two districts a chance to interact. And, tonight parents and families can join the fun, at an open house that includes a potluck dinner and garden tour.

The i-Grow program took root from the popular Project MOST-sponsored Springs Seedlings. Begun about seven years ago, Springs Seedlings is an "edible schoolyard" that provides kids with a place to go both during and after school to connect with the earth through the garden and greenhouse. Teachers at Springs School use the outdoor "classroom" for science and biology classes, plus studies of life cycles, and much more.

i-Grow is made possible through a grant from the Levitt Foundation. This is the final year of the endowment. "Hopefully," said Bryden, "We'll get an extension."

kmerrill@indyeastend.com

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