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Suffern Seniors Create The Giving Garden

There is nothing better than starting your day speaking with four high school seniors determined to make a difference. What started as a school assignment has turned into a community endeavor and a project that will have lasting effects on the students and those less fortunate.

It started last year when, Marley Simpson, Audrey Risko, Natalie Rosenthal and Chloe Barbanell were tasked to research and come up with a solution to a global issue that also had local relevance. After examination of several topics, they settled on hunger and food insecurity as their research found that 1 in 10 people in Rockland County are food insecure.

Food insecurity occurs when people live in communities with unreliable access to affordable and nutritious food. Instead these areas are heavy on local fast food chains and “quicky” markets whose food choices are loaded with processed sugar and excess fat.

Surprised to find that people fell into this category in their own backyard motivated the girls to implement a solution that would bring healthy food to their local community. They brainstormed several ways they could tackle the problem which included expanding the food stamp program, strengthening the local food infrastructure and increasing the number of food pantries, but ultimately decided that providing a sustainable food source was the most “doable” option.

As a result, the Suffern High School Giving Garden was born with the mission of providing fresh food to those in their community, while encouraging a passion for learning and contributing to society. Quite a big venture for anyone, let alone four high school seniors.

Luckily for them they had access to a Master Gardener, Chloe’s mom, Terry Barbanell, who quickly agreed to mentor the girls throughout the project. As a Master Gardener, Barbanell, has completed the Master Gardener Training Course offered by Cornell Cooperative Extension of Rockland and has become certified by the extension to volunteer and help extend gardening knowledge into the community.

Cornell Cooperative Extension is an educational institution that was started over 100 years ago with the goal of using researched based strategies to provide the experience and knowledge needed to help communities throughout New York State.

The girls then started devising their plan and concentrated on what they wanted the outcome of the Giving Garden to be. After contacting Kitty Nash who runs Lunch with Love, a local soup kitchen, they found that one of her biggest challenges is getting fresh food donated.

In most cases, when they do get fresh fruits and vegetables, it is at the end of its life. As a result, the only way to serve it is to incorporate it in cooked dishes. This means they are rarely able to offer a simple salad or a healthy side dish.

It became clear that Lunch with Love was a great destination for the food they would grow. They brought the idea to the administration and got approval to use one of the court yards to construct the garden.

The idea became a reality and it was time to get started. Passionate about the project they started to see the garden much more than a place to grow vegetables. “We want it to be a community space where we host community events within the school district, like planting parties and spring cleans ups. We want to make the space much more than just wooden beds.” The girls told me.

“With a project like this “magic happens”, says Barbanell, “I know from working in other school gardens over the last few years, you spark something between parents and their kids when they are working together in the garden. You spark different relationships between teachers and students when they are doing physical work together. They see a different side of each other than when they are interacting in a classroom.”

In order to enlist the help of others, they started a club, gave out flyers and made announcements. They then set up a FB page and Instagram account. They also attended PTA meetings where they brought their ideas to the faculty and have been met with tons of school support. “Since this has never been done before they were wide open to hearing about our ideas and what we planned to do. Now, as they see the beds in place and things growing they are saying, “wow, this is really happening,” the students proudly told me.

With Suffern Central School District recently rolling out a Project Based Learning Initiative, focused on genuine experiences where students learn by doing, the garden presents a perfect place to engage students and incorporate hands on learning projects in the classroom.

An example is getting the art department involved so that they can beautify the gardens with different forms of art or having the family and consumer science classes incorporate what is grown in what they prepare.

After much hard work over the summer, constructing 19 4x8 beds and filling them with soil, roughly, 600 square feet of garden, on September 17th, The Giving Gardeners planted their first crops. Included were lettuces, broccoli, cabbage, radishes, arugula, spinach and Swiss Chard. As of today, the first harvest has been picked and donated to Lunch with Love, as planned. To prolong the growing season the club recently constructed low tunnels, hoping to provide fresh produce well into November.

As for what they will be growing come spring, you name it. Right now the list includes cucumbers, potatoes, eggplant, tomatoes, lettuce and squash. They are also thinking about adding berry bushes along side of the building. You go girls!

What would the girls like to see with the garden space by the time they graduate in the spring? Of course they would like to see a successful harvest but they would also like to have a legacy plan in place to help other students maintain the Gardening Club. They would like to see their project inspire upcoming classes and for the garden and everything it brings with it to continue for years to come.

The club would like to thank all its donors for their help in launching this project, especially John, from Rainbow ACE Hardware, for his generous donation of garden supplies and interest in the club as well as Boy Scout troop #77 for coordinating and helping with the construction of the beds.

Anyone who is interested in seeing how they can help the Giving Garden, you can contact them through their Instagram page.

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