A cold, wet and blustery spring day didn’t dampen the enthusiasm of dozens of kindergarteners or their teacher, Losianne Duke, at the opening of the Garden of Gems at the Thurgood Marshall Academy Lower School. This is the second try at launching a garden at the school. Duke has her fingers crossed that this year it will be successful in getting her young students excited about growing healthy foods from garden to table and teaching them healthy eating habits. The garden features a variety of veggies from cauliflower to zucchini and herbs like basil and oregano.
“I overheard a conversation between two of my kindergarteners discussing snacks. When asked about candy by a classmate, the other child replied, ‘I don’t eat candy. That’s a woe food. I only eat go foods.’ That’s living proof that if we start early, we can make a difference in the childhood obesity that is plaguing our children,” she said.
“There’s no greater gem to be sought after than the health of our children, our future, our gems. And through the garden, the children will have a close-up, in-your-face, hands-on experience from seed to plant, fostering the development of their own organically grown foods, creating their own go foods,” she said.
Harlem Hospital, the Abyssinian Development Corporation and the American Heart Association all pitched in to support the green effort.
Craig Braithwaite, chief of emergency medicine at Harlem Hospital, is the director of the Harlem Hospital Ujima Garden Project. Braithwaite was quick to get his hands in the dirt with the kids. “I love to spread the gospel of the green and the choir of callaloo, kale and cabbage,” he said.
“They let me loose on the roof last year, and we did pretty good. This year, we’re trying to expand. I want to have the Michelle O. annex,” he said, referring to first lady Michele Obama’s famous White House gardening project. “For me, aligning myself with the kids just spreads my whole garden thing.”
Braithwaite went around to each plot, where kids were busy turning the soil and putting in young plants. They were just as enthused with the wildlife in the soil as with the planting, fascinated by the earthworms, pill bugs, millipedes and other insects in the soil. Braithwaite explained that the soil itself is a living thing and that those insects help to clean it and make it healthier for the plants.
Thurgood Marshall Lower School is the first of what he hopes will be many others as he continues to look to expand his gardening efforts. He clearly knows a thing or two about gardening and has a natural ease with kids.
Braithwait, who grew up in the Bronx, got his passion for gardening at age 4 after his grandfather moved from the city out to Long Island. His mother would send him there during the summer months.
“He was a gardener and me and my cousins were the labor force,” he said. “We didn’t really like it initially, being in the hot sun picking peas, but it kinda grows into you.” He stuck with it through his college days and took advantage of every opportunity to garden.
He employs the principles of gardening from Will Allen of the group Growing Power. “The three pillars of sustainable gardening are you have to grow soil, you have to grow food and you have to grow community. Soil means for a cafeteria at a school, you make composts. You always improve your soil. Food means that you grow food in the soil that you’ve improved. Community means that you use the resources of the entire community for your efforts.
There’s not just one person that benefits; it’s a community activity. I see this as being a network of activity around the whole idea of growing food and everything that it means,” he said.
Ghylian Bell, founder of the Urban Yoga Foundation, teaches yoga to inner-city kids. She gave a mini yoga lesson to the kids before they got to work on the planting.
“It’s about understanding that this is a lifestyle. Yoga encompasses everything. It means to come together and to unite. Kids understand that it’s not just about physical activity, but also about what they put in their bodies. This is a very good example of healthy habits, sustainability and longevity-creating habits that they can cultivate throughout their lives, understanding where food comes from, what it does for them, how it makes them strong and how it helps their bodies grow. I’m very proud of the American Heart Association for this program and happy to be a part of it,” she said.
As for the kids, despite the drizzle and the chill, they were happy to get planting.