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Stony Brook Medicine rooftop garden teaches young farmers healthy lessons

Twice a year, Long Island kids are recruited to harvest organic produce from Stony Brook Medicine's 200-square-foot rooftop farm, where they learn about the importance of nutrition, gain new cooking skills to take home and how food and sustainability go hand in hand.  (Credit: Randee Daddona)

From rooftop farming to table, these kids learned the ingredients needed for healthy living.

Judging by the bounty of crops — fruits and vegetables ripened by Long Island's July sun and yanked free from patches of dirt — nine young children attending a cooking workshop found joy in getting their hands dirty while learning about sustainable gardening, healthy cooking and eating.

The budding Long Island farmers, ages 9 to 11, this week participated in "Healthy Cooking and Baking Classes for Kids," a program launched at The Stony Brook Heights Rooftop Micro-Farm — a small outdoor farm/garden on a rooftop on the third floor of the Health Sciences Tower at Stony Brook University Hospital.

The cooking program was  initiated last summer by Sotiria Everett, a registered dietitian and clinical assistant professor at the university. The classes are designed to teach the amateur chefs how to plant, harvest and cook for lifelong health.

“Eating well is a way you can prevent diseases in the long run, and eating well has to begin at this age,” Everett said. “The way kids learn is to be interactive and be hands on, and this is one way where they’re learning nutrition, learning how to eat well, learning about produce and where the food actually comes from.”

The rooftop farm started in 2011 with funding from the New York State Department of Health, said Josephine Connolly-Schoonen, also a registered dietitian and clinical assistant professor at the university as well as the director of the Nutrition Division for Stony Brook Medicine.

The farm supplies approximately 1,500 pounds of produce including tomatoes, strawberries, zucchinis, carrots, cilantro, parsley and other herbs. Most of the produce is used to prepare meals for the hospital's patients and the rest is donated to local charities, Connolly-Schoonen said.

“The whole idea was to really help impress upon patients how important it is to eat healthy, and that we think it’s so important for your health and healing that we’re willing to invest the time to grow some of it ourselves for you,” Connolly-Schoonen said of the initial farm-to-bedside concept.

“It’s just a good symbol of our Nutrition Division and how important whole food is for people’s health and healing, as well as disease prevention,” she said.

The workshops, two, three-day sessions, began Tuesday. The next session in two weeks is already full, Everett said. 

After picking the organically grown crops from the garden on Wednesday, the students bundled the produce and took it inside to the food preparation area, replete with additional ingredients, mixing bowls, measuring cups, cutting boards and an electric mixer. Then they chopped the deep-green herbs to prepare an omelet, sliced the strawberries to make Popsicles, and turned fresh-picked zucchini into chocolate zucchini muffins.

On another day, some of the garlic from the garden was used to prepare pesto. The rest was sent to the university hospital kitchen.

Aside from the farm-to-table approach, students also are taught about food waste, composting and sustainability.

“Do you guys remember what food miles are?” Everett asked a group of four children who were finishing up a mint-lemonade recipe, reinforcing the concept of sustainability. 

Almost in unison, two responded: "It’s how far products travel from."

Several of this year’s students also took part in last year’s session. Everett  hopes the students will take the lessons from the classroom to their daily life — from shopping at local farmers markets to trying new recipes.

The workshops also provide a place for youngsters to experience the tactile wonder of cooking and bring them closer to the sources of the food on their dinner tables at home. 

“I think it’s about raising awareness,” said Annie Ng, who co-manages the rooftop farm, of Everett’s classes. "If you just give them the vegetable and ask them to eat it, they’re not as receptive as if they’re out here, they’re picking it, they’re harvesting it and then they go inside and they’re cooking it themselves — they’re much more open to trying new things.”


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