Jessica Damiano Jessica Damiano, Newsday columnist

Jessica Damiano is a master gardener and journalist with more than 25 years experience in radio, television, print and online media. She has worked on Newsday's interactive endeavors since 1994, and currently is Deputy Editor overseeing Newsday.com's Lifestyle and Entertainment coverage. Jessica enjoys toiling in her garden -- a never-finished work in progress -- and helping local gardeners solve their horticultural problems in her Garden Detective column, which appears every Sunday in Newsday. Her Garden Detective column and blog have been awarded Press Club of Long Island Society of Professional Journalists Awards. Jessica lives in Glen Head, NY, with her husband John, daughters Justine and Julia, dogs Maddie and Miguel, and a whole bunch of perennials, vegetable plants and weeds. Ask a question Show More

Emma Ginsberg carried her plate to the table and sat down, tired and hungry after a long morning of hard work. The bright-red juicy tomatoes in her salad beckoned, along with fresh, green lettuce and cucumbers that crunched when she bit them. Her lunch was locally sourced and harvested just hours before.

But Emma isn’t a farmer, and she wasn’t dining at a hipster farm-to-table joint with a coffeehouse vibe: She’s a sixth-grader at The Waldorf School in Garden City, where gardening has long been integrated into the class schedule and students eat the fruits of their own labor in the school cafeteria.

Other Long Island schools are also taking steps to introduce students to gardening, and the benefits extend far beyond the vegetable patch. Students are learning not only how to grow food, which incorporates incidental hands-on science and math lessons, but they’re also learning about nutrition and picking up business skills, all of which will serve them well in the future. Plus, they’re spending time outdoors and getting exercise.

“We’re different from other schools in that we focus a lot on eco-friendly, plant-friendly things,” said Waldorf 11th-grader Aidan Koubel, 16. “Last year, we had a new water dispenser installed in the cafeteria because the school stopped selling water bottles to save plastic and help the environment as much as possible.”

The Waldorf School serves organic, homegrown produce harvested from its own garden. Students like Emma, 11, tend the vegetable patch (and fruit trees and herb gardens) during two mandatory class periods each week as part of the school’s gardening curriculum, and they do all the planting, weeding, harvesting — and eating, according to Jeannine Davis, the school’s sustainability and science teacher.

At The Waldorf School of Garden City, Emma Ginsberg, 11, center, a sixth-grader, enjoys a lunch salad of garden-grown produce in the school's cafeteria. Photo Credit: Heather Walsh

Davis, who has a master’s degree in Waldorf education — a teaching method founded in 1919 by Austrian scientist Rudolf Steiner that emphasizes academic and experiential studies for the growing child — and has been teaching at the school for 11 years, said she believes “children need to be out in nature more, especially today with their phones, some kids have zero nature in their lives. They wake up with their phone and go to sleep with their phone. It’s really a problem because it affects you spiritually if you’re not out in nature. I want to immerse them in it.”

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The school’s program teaches not only about sustainable agriculture and organic gardening techniques, but also delves into the presence and effects of pesticides in the food supply and enlists students to think about change.

The course material gets increasingly more involved as students get older, Davis said, with first- through third-graders “just doing the basics of gardening, like how deep should you plant something? — you shouldn’t see the roots — and learning to make compost.” Fourth- through seventh-graders are more involved in maintaining the garden. They also study weeds and learn about insects, botany, pollination and the weather. Seventh- and eighth-graders build the composters and focus more on sustainability, while learning about cooking, canning, nutrition and fermentation.

Back in the cafeteria, Koubel dipped his spoon into a steaming bowl of tomato-basil soup, his favorite of the kitchen’s garden-derived offerings. Although he has completed the gardening curriculum at the school, a lifetime of lessons has left a permanent impression on him. Koubel has been a student at Waldorf since he was in pre-kindergarten and said the school’s culture has influenced his family life.

“My mom converted to organic foods and it’s changed the way my whole family eats,” he said, adding that his family also has a composter.

Jeannine Davis, 45, of Long Beach, horticulture and garden teacher at The Waldorf School of Garden City, gives instructions to Ms. Thomas' second-grade class before they venture out to tend to the garden, on Sept. 21, 2016, in Garden City. Photo Credit: Heather Walsh

All the crops grown in Waldorf’s garden beds and greenhouse end up in the cafeteria, Davis said, except for those harvested for use during cooking class, where students recently whipped up a batch of savory garlic kale.

Junior Kayla Douglass, 16, transferred to The Waldorf School from public school when she was in sixth grade. She spent only three years in the school’s gardening program, but she, too, attributes a lifestyle change to those classes.

“It was a very good experience,” Douglass said. “The classes were fun and I learned a lot about planting properly and cooking the food we grew, and I started eating more organically,” she said, adding that her parents now “like the organic lifestyle, too.”

Growing friendships and more

“There are many benefits to school gardens,” said Judiann Carmack-Fayyaz, founder and president of Edible School Gardens of the East End, adding that they are “the perfect place to teach food and environmental literacy.” Carmack-Fayyaz teaches multiple subjects, including nutrition and culinary arts, to middle and high school students in the Bridgehampton Union Free School District.

Justin LaPointe, right, a Junior at Bridgehampton School, with his botany teacher Judiann Carmack-Fayyaz, picks tomatoes from the schools garden, in Bridgehampton, Sept. 13, 2016. Photo Credit: Gordon M. Grant

Lessons in horticulture, botany, science, nutrition and taste education take place there, she said, adding that “one of the most significant benefits of the school garden movement has to do with social development. Many unlikely friendships have been formed in the garden.”

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Carmack-Fayyaz, who was recognized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and a consortium with the 2016 Agriculture in the Classroom Award, said she founded the East End group in 2008 “to share information and resources with other school garden representatives” and to promote gardening and wellness in schools. She started the garden at Bridgehampton School, raised funds to build a greenhouse there and has involved the students in all phases of the growing process — from learning about soil science, botany, agricultural production, propagation and the physiology of plants and the environmental factors that affect plant growth, to hydroponics and even orchid care.

But the students are learning even more than that. Nia Dawson, 17 and the star of the girls’ basketball team, said she never imagined she’d be interested in gardening. But when her friend Madi Koral started a gardening group called “Sprouts” as her senior project, Dawson dug right in.

“It’s very different from anything I’ve done,” she said. “After I got involved, I really started to like it, and I spoke to my parents about starting a garden at home. It’s a great way to save money and eat healthier.”

The school even started a new “entrepreneurial agribusiness project where students grow and sell edible flowers at a farm stand that is now being built,” Carmack-Fayyaz said, adding that the students “will be creating a business from scratch.”

Madi Koral, left, and Nia Dawson, both seniors, pick bouquets of flowers to sell, during a botany class, from the flower garden at Bridgehampton School in Bridgehampton, Sept. 13, 2016. Photo Credit: Gordon M. Grant

Carmack-Fayyaz said the school’s greenhouse was paramount because the growing season on Long Island doesn’t coincide with the school year. The structure not only allows the students to grow food year-round, it affords the opportunity to teach them about four-season production using quick hoops, Carmack-Fayyaz said, referring to fabric-covered plastic hoops that are installed over crops to protect against cold snaps and extend the growing season. The students grow foods that store well, like potatoes, butternut squash, onions, herbs and lettuce, and greens and herbs are supplied to the cafeteria on a weekly basis.

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Bumper crop of programs

More than 30 school districts on Long Island have garden programs, with more joining the movement every year. The benefits spill over from the classroom to the dinner table.

Much like the strategy employed by many parents who involve their picky eaters in the cooking process to entice them to try new foods, Carmack-Fayyaz said children are more likely to eat vegetables they grow themselves, and that, in turn, fosters healthy, lifelong eating habits.

“It is really exciting to plant a seed and to follow its development into a plant. In short, it is a small miracle,” Carmack-Fayyaz said. “Kids feel a personal connection to the plant and are willing to try eating it. They are always amazed by the fresh, delicious taste of fresh produce.”

Alexander Kamper, left and Aris Witty, both Seniors at Pierson Middle/High School, plant seeds in seedling trays at the schools garden in Sag Harbor, Sept. 23, 2016. Kamper was instrumental in building the garden, which is in a corner of the school's athletic field. Photo Credit: Gordon M. Grant

A few miles north, in Sag Harbor, Alexander Kamper’s school didn’t have a garden, nor any plans to build one, but that didn’t stop the Pierson Middle/High School student from starting his own last year in a 3,600-square-foot corner of the school’s athletic field.

Now a senior, Kamper, 17, said he originally had “lofty dreams of producing all my food for the winter, but as I started compiling information, I became overwhelmed.” Undeterred — and ever resourceful — he contacted farmer Scott Chaskey of Quail Hill Farms in Amagansett and asked for advice and an apprenticeship. He got both.

Beginning as a volunteer and soaking up all the knowledge he could, Kamper is now an employee at the farm and has used his newfound knowledge — and lots of elbow grease — to develop the school plot, almost single-handedly.

“It was a bureaucratic process, trying to get space for the garden from the keeper of the school’s grounds,” he said. “My principal, Mr. Nichols, and his assistant, Miss Meah, have been very supportive. They’ve been helping me with buying things with school funds. There’s a lot of paperwork involved.”

When he finally got the green light this past school year, the school supplied $50 to $70 worth of seeds and a seeder. “The school also was able to rototill the space for me, which was nice,” Kamper said, “but the rototiller broke in the process, so I had to plant on partially cultivated ground, which was devastating for my tomato plants.”

Alexander Kamper, right, and Aris Witty, both Seniors at Pierson Middle/High School, spread mulch in the schools garden in Sag Harbor, Sept. 23, 2016. Kamper was instrumental in building the garden, which is in a corner of the school's athletic field. Photo Credit: Gordon M. Grant

He also had deer to contend with. “My dad paid for a fence,” Kamper said, so deer are no longer a problem. Still, there is a lot more work to be done — and money to be spent. Over the summer, his grandparents, sister and a couple of friends have helped here and there, and Kamper rented another rototiller with his own money. That experience, he said, was eye-opening.

“Renting heavy equipment, visiting tool supply shops and operating the rototiller was a lesson in manhood,” Kamper said with a chuckle. At Quail Hill Farms, where he works part time, Kamper’s duties include weeding, planting and cultivating.

He has launched a Pierson Garden Club Facebook page and uses it to promote the fledgling school garden and communicate with other students when he heads over to the plot so they can join in.

“On a few occasions I’ve had people come work with me, which was really nice,” he said. “My personal goal has been to establish a foundation for students who come after me, so others don’t have to deal with the bureaucratic ordeal. I’d love to see the food being incorporated into the cafeteria, and see the curriculum open up to food preservation, such as canning and freezing.”

Kamper, who hopes to one day work in research science, said he would also like to donate produce from the garden to the Sag Harbor Community Food Pantry. “The garden wasn’t really productive enough to donate anything this year, but it’s a future aim,” he said. “Since I’m graduating, I’m leaving that to future leaders of the club.”

The future is exactly what motivates The Waldorf School’s Davis.

“My whole goal is for students to have a reverence for nature, so that they’re going to want to do the right thing when they’re faced with it when they’re older,” she said. “You can’t ask a person to save the environment if they don’t have the foundation.”