On a recent weeknight at Mathews-Dickey Boys' and Girls' Club, several tables were lined with a host of colorful and delectable foods and beverages — Caesar salad, pesto pizza, Thai chicken lettuce wraps, basil lemonade and kale cheesecake.
These delights were part of a Spring Harvest and literally the fruits — well, veggies, to be more exact — of the labors of students participating in the Green St. Louis Machine, an area program that brings aeroponic gardening into the urban classroom.
Seventh-graders at St. Roch School in the West End of St. Louis have been participating this past year in the effort, which is sponsored by Mathews-Dickey, in partnership with NexGen Growing and Juice Plus, which manufactures the aeroponic Tower Gardens.
"They thought of this for urban schools with not a lot of green space," said St. Roch teacher Paul Shaver. "And as you can see, we don't have a lot of green space around here."
The Green St. Louis Machine launched about two years ago, modeled after the Green Bronx Machine, an internationally recognized program started by Stephen Ritz, a teacher and administrator in South Bronx. Ritz offered gardening as a solution to his belief that students shouldn't have to leave their community to live, learn and earn in a better one.
The program has generated more than 40,000 pounds of vegetables in the Bronx and increased academic performance. Organizers there have cited a 45 percent increase in passing rates schoolwide on science exams and a 50 percent reduction in behavioral incidents and out-of-class time during the 2015-16 school year.
Ritz, who was in St. Louis April 3 for the Spring Harvest at Mathews-Dickey, said people have the power to change their destiny. "What you eat determines who and what you are," he said. "Today I visited a school and more than 50 percent of the children knew someone immediately in their family who has diabetes. Input equals output — this is an opportunity to change the life trajectories for so many people."
Ritz also described urban areas with a lack of nutritious food options not as food deserts — but food swamps. Low-income communities often are besieged with poor food choices, via the marketing and profit engines of large corporations, he said.
"We can end all of that simply by controlling what we put in our mouths," he said. "I want to end hunger and poverty in my lifetime, and I believe we can absolutely do that by and through the process of gardening."
Green St. Louis Machine
St. Roch teacher Paul Shaver learned about the Green St. Louis Machine from a parent and attended a workshop at Mathews-Dickey. The school received three Tower Gardens and began planting at the beginning of the 2016-17 school year. Each tower costs about $1,000; funding was provided by Green St. Louis Machine and through a fundraiser dinner at the school.
Each tower measures about 6 feet tall and is encased by a cage holding 4-foot fluorescent grow lights. The center of the tower has individual planting pods filled with Rockwool plugs, which are used for starting plantings from seed. Students sowed a variety of lettuces and herbs including arugula, rainbow chard, parsley, bok choy, basil, cilantro and bib lettuce. They're also experimenting with vegetables, including cherry tomatoes and cucumbers.
The plants are fed through a system that pumps water through the tower in 20-minute cycles. A solution with a blend of minerals is added to the water. Students also test the water's PH level weekly. While the activity is considered an extracurricular within the classroom, Shaver said students touch on lessons in chemistry and even biology. For example, because the garden doesn't have access to outdoor pollinators, students have hand-pollinated the flowers on the cucumber plants, leading them into a discussion on asexual reproduction.
Every three to four weeks, students harvest their crops. On a recent afternoon, seventh-graders set up a mini salad bar in the science lab, complete with toppings such as craisins, cherry tomatoes and Provel cheese. It's expanded their horizons, making healthy eating a fun activity for them.
"They come back for seconds and don't waste a leaf," Shaver said. "This certainly is broadening their palates."
In fact, the local program has increased students' interest in eating fruits and vegetables by 35 percent, according to Mathews-Dickey president and CEO Wendell Covington Jr.
St. Roch student Annie Gill discovered she liked adding basil to her salads and has increased the amount of vegetables she eats. Her family primarily eats Punjabi cuisine at home, which includes meat- and vegetable-based dishes. "I wasn't really aware that things like basil could be used in salads," the seventh-grader said. "I also started eating more vegetables when we started this. It's helped expand the class' horizons and that's where I felt that some of us don't tend to eat healthy very often."
The aeroponic garden inspired Grace Barton and her family to create a compost and plant a vegetable garden this spring. Doing more for the environment and creating opportunities to have more healthy food options at home were among the motivating factors, said mom Jennifer Barton.
"I've never had much salad in my life, but I've learned about a whole lot more vegetables and what I like and what I don't like," Grace Barton said. Gardening at home "is going to be a lot of fun."
>> Meeting with Il Papa
It was hard for Stephen Ritz not to be moved to tears when he met Pope Francis.
Ritz, was named with 20 other delegates to work with the Pontifical Foundation Scholas Occurrentes, an international project that brings together schools and educational networks from different cultures and religious backgrounds, with the goal of improving education and empowering communities.
In February 2015, he and 20 other delegates were invited by Pope Francis to meet with the Scholas Occurrentes to talk about connecting schools worldwide. The same year, Ritz was named a top 10 finalist with the Varkey Foundation Global Teacher Prize, often described as the Nobel Prize for teachers.
In fact, Ritz had to ditch a planned visit to St. Louis to help promote the Green St. Louis Machine so he could make it to the Vatican. But organizers here were understanding. After all, how many people get a personal invitation to visit Pope Francis?
"The warmth and love radiating from His Holiness will change the world!" Ritz wrote in a blog post. "To be in a room with Pope Francis — much less at Vatican City — is beyond inspiring; his words moved me to tears — and further action. He is the revolution, and he continues to coalesce people around the world in an unprecedented and inclusive manner via love, compassion and commitment."
Pope Francis has spoken often about food insecurity and better access to healthy eating options. In 2015 at the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization international conference, he focused on reducing the waste of food, education on healthy eating and supporting solidarity in promoting food security.
"Food security must be achieved," Pope Francis said. "We must begin with our daily lives if we want to change lifestyles, aware that our small gestures can guarantee sustainability and the future of the human family."
Green St. Louis Machine
To learn more about the Green St. Louis Machine, visit www.stlouisreview.com/boq
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