Savannah Gonzalez, a rising junior at New Roots Charter School, spends her time attending protests and tending to a small plot of land next to Immaculate Conception Church in Ithaca. Scattered hay bales sit beside square patches of dirt, where students like Gonzalez tend to vegetables like potatoes, swiss chard and peppers.
The Urban Farming Project, a club-style student engagement program at New Roots, began in March. Jhakeem Haltom, dean of students at New Roots Charter School, approached Father Augustine Chumo of Immaculate Conception Church to ask if the school could utilize the land for a farming project. The project joins students with their community and the land, a core value of New Roots’ education, Haltom said.
Since the Southern Tier Region, which includes Tompkins County, entered Phase 1 of reopening in May, student and adult volunteers arrived on site donning multicolored masks and worked approximately six feet apart. Gonzalez said via email that it was important for her to continue working at the garden even in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.
“It is so important to continue this type of work no matter what happens in life,” she said. “We need to be able to grow healthy and organic food to better our community.”
Mike Moritz, who volunteers with the farming project, said the coronavirus offered students and volunteers an opportunity to connect with the things they valued most, including cultivating and connecting with the land.
“I think that we're able to see a lot of positive outcomes from […] reclaiming our relationship with land,” Moritz said. “This farm and any farming that we get to do will be that much more ingrained in our curriculum.”
Beyond allowing New Roots to use the land for a garden, Immaculate Conception partnered with New Roots to assist with the church’s weekly food pantry, which Chumo said provides families in need with approximately nine days worth of food. The food pantry draws from the vegetables the students grow, donations and grocery stores like Wegmans or Tops.
Haltom said the farming project will also try to link the New Roots’ lunch program with the food the students grow. Students have been vying for fries in their cafeteria, he said, and the potatoes they grow in the garden could be used for that.
The farming project, which displays organic gardening on a small scale, could act as a pilot program for other people or their communities, Chumo said.
“It will show people where the food comes from and that we can use a small space to produce,” he said. “Everybody might be inspired to have a small kitchen garden of some sort, and that within a small area you can actually produce enough to eat.”
Tina Nilsen-Hodges, principal, superintendent and founder of New Roots, said via email that the Urban Farming Project aligns with the school’s commitment to joining sustainability and justice with education.
“It gives young people a direct and intimate understanding of the relationship between people and the natural world that sustains us,” she said. “Personal health and well-being is connected to the food we eat, and growing food and making and sharing meals together builds community.”
Gonzalez is the president of the Students of Color Unity Elective, a group of students that volunteers at the farming project while also starting a conversation about social justice and environmental racism.
In 2018, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published a study indicating that on national, state, and county scales, communities of color were disproportionately affected by poor water and air quality as a result of living closer to polluters. Gonzalez said via email that the Unity Elective brings a substantial perspective to the project.
“We bring a fun and positive environment when gardening,” she said. “We also bring a deeper conversation about racism and gardening which are actually closely connected. […] This project brings a brighter and more positive aspect of life to a community who have seen a lot of racism and discrimination […] including being fed unhealthy food that doesn’t heal the mind nor body.”
Haltom said it has been encouraging to see the students participating in activism that directly impacts their community.
“One of our goals is to connect […] social justice with sustainability practices,” he said. “Given the recent [crises] that have occurred in our world, it's been wonderful to watch those students coming together to engage not just in protesting but also in actual practices that sustain their relationship to the school.”