MARGATE — Teacher Jessica Cuevas doesn’t think of the garden in the Eugene A. Tighe School courtyard as just a place to grow produce.
To her, it’s an endeavor that has benefited students, parents and families well beyond the city.
“The garden doesn’t belong to us,” she told students, staff, family and guests at a special assembly Monday at the school. “We belong to the garden. It’s bigger than any one of us.”
The 6-year-old garden was honored by the state Department of Agriculture with its first School Garden of the Year award Monday, presented by Agriculture Secretary Douglas H. Fisher to kick off New Jersey Farm to School Week. The school received a banner to display and $1,000 to put toward garden activities.
“I go to schools where students don’t even know we grow produce in New Jersey,” Fisher said. “They don’t live near any farms. You are a model for the state.”
Justin Darko, Farm to School coordinator for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said school gardens can be a challenge. Urban schools have little space, and there is always the issue of who will maintain it over the summer.
“But even a small project works,” he said. “Hopefully we can build on the momentum. The goal is to get teacher, parent and community buy-in, and that sense of community is what I will take away from this project today.”
Margate’s garden was chosen from among 165 applicants, a number that exceeded expectations, said Beth Feehan, of the New Jersey Farm to School Network, which helped organize the award. The project will also help the state track how many schools have gardens. The Margate garden stood out not just for its produce, but for how teachers incorporate it into academic lessons, nutrition and community service.
Students have learned how to take measurements by planning and planting the garden, and written essays based on its seasons. Art students depicted the colorful rainbow chard.
Cuevas thanked those who helped get the garden literally off the ground, including local restaurateur Cookie Till, and Cuevas’ husband, Bob Blumberg, who she said didn’t realize was taking on a second job when he helped her get it started.
She admitted summers were challenging the first couple of years, but said now there is a system and steady contingent of students and their families who take turns maintaining the garden, and selling the produce. Students sell produce at the Margate Community Farmers Market on Saturdays, and this year raised $1,400 that will be used to buy food for the Community FoodBank of New Jersey.
Cuevas also thanked Kevin McCarthy, of Hannah-G’s restaurant in Ventnor, whom she called their single largest customer. McCarthy said he promotes the school items as part of his organic menu, using the produce in salads and omelets.
“Whatever I buy on Saturday rarely lasts past Sunday,” he said.
Students led guests on tours of the garden, which is winding down as the weather cools. There are still some eggplant and peppers, fresh herbs, and figs on the fig tree that student Drew Brooks, 10, said will be used to make cookies.
James Bradley, 10, likes spicy peppers, which he had never tried before getting involved in the garden.
“I worked a lot out here last year,” he said.
Sophia Ruh, 9, said they made salad dressing for a fresh green salad, and Tai Schiavo, 9, said his favorite item was ratatouille, a vegetable stew of peppers, tomatoes, eggplant and squash.
Many of the recipes were compiled into a cookbook this year, titled “Garden Gourmet Goes Home.”
New federal guidelines require students to get more fresh fruits and vegetables in school lunch, but there is a concern that students won’t eat them. Cuevas said when students have grown the food themselves, they are much more interested in at least trying it, even if they don’t like everything.
After the tour, guests feasted on refreshments that included tabouleh and baba ganouj made by Cuevas using cucumber, parsley and eggplant from the garden.
“My husband and I were out here yesterday cleaning up and picking stuff for today,” Cuevas said. “This has just grown in wonderful ways I never could have predicted.”
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