Growing Gardens and Confidence: Brooklyn Urban Garden Charter School (BUGS) Expands Farm to School Impact with the NY Farm to School Institute

There’s a 1990s-era salsa ad proclaiming that if it’s made in New York City, it can’t be good salsa. The actors suggest it’s because you can’t get “real ingredients” in the bustling metropolitan area. Students at the Brooklyn Urban Garden Charter School (BUGS) are learning otherwise.

Group of students observing a food demonstration at Brooklyn Urban Gardens Charter School

All students get first-hand experience growing, preparing, and eating fresh produce from three gardens on campus and benefit from trips to urban farms. The uniquely designed BUGS curriculum focuses on sustainability and emphasizes the connection between what students grow and eat. 

Instruction focuses on building healthy urban ecosystems including the importance of fresh food needed to create livable, healthy communities. Existing partnerships with community organizations like the Garden Train, Brooklyn Grange Farm, Brooklyn Botanic Garden, GrowNYC, and others introduced students to sustainable urban food production. Interactive cooking demonstrations using products grown in one of the school’s three gardens nurtured interest in fresh foods.

“In the cooking demonstrations we speak to cultural connections, nutritional value, where the products come from, the value of cooking fresh and local,” said Laura Karlen, the school’s sustainability program manager.

But the once integral cooking program had fallen to the wayside and was limited to sixth-grade students. When Karlen discovered the New York Farm to School Institute, a program of Farm to Institution New York State (FINYS), she knew it would significantly advance the school’s farm-to-school programming by uniting individual grant-funded farm initiatives and bring it to the entire student population rather than one grade level.

“Gathering a team with a focus and having George (Edwards) as a coach has integrated the farm-to-school programming schoolwide,” said Karlen. “The purchase of the picnic tables with the FINYS implementation award has provided valuable outdoor classroom space to encourage all teachers to use the garden as a living classroom.”

Mentoring is a key component of the FINYS Farm to School Institute program. Leaders from BUGS were paired with George Edwards, the NYC Department of Education chef/manager-NYC Farm to School Program. The partnership amplified individual efforts by uniting similar efforts. 

“Before FINYS, it was one person running around, trying to gather interest in farm to school, especially with senior management,” he said. “Now, we can have a greater impact.”

Edwards said one of the most rewarding outcomes of working together is seeing student reactions to the hands-on activities.

“At first, they were reserved and a little intimidated but quickly snapped out of it once they got their hands dirty,” he said. “Some students knew more about the ingredients than others did, so they were able to take the lead and explain things to their classmates. Both sides gained more confidence in the experiment.”

Kids can be picky eaters, and it can be discouraging when trying to introduce farm fresh foods. It can take numerous attempts for a child to get past their fears of a food, especially before they are comfortable enough to dig in. Edwards offers three tips for encouraging participation:

  1. Don’t tell kids to “eat this; it’s healthy.” That is the fastest way to discourage participation.
  2. Let the children pick up the items instead of serving them. Putting food in cups on the tables develops independence and lets them make the call on whether they want it or not.
  3. Find the students who are the leaders of the group. These are the students from whom the others take their cue from. Talk to them, not down to them. Once you gain their trust, the other students might be more willing to try an item if they see their “leader” try it first. They will take several attempts, but it will work. 

"They may walk past the table several times before deciding on trying something. Let them walk past as many times as it takes. If they make a choice, that decision will stay with them," Edwards said.

Much like a garden, growing farm to school programs takes commitment and patience, and a belief that seeds planted today will bear fruit in the months or years to come. Kids given the chance to grow and eat nutritious food today may carry those experiences into adulthood and with future generations. And when life hands them tomatoes, they will know that they can make salsa in Brooklyn.

-Story by Katie Navarra