Tuesday, April 23, 2024

From Jeffrey Perrin of CitySprouts, Sept. 21, 2017: Some are dashing out to the nearest farmers markets and food coops to snap up the remaining treasures of the late summer harvest, leaving with canvas bags stuffed with corn, tomatoes, basil, apples and maybe even their first small pumpkin of the fall season. For these people, September dinner plates are a medley of vibrant reds, dark greens and sunshine yellows, with each bite offering a burst of brilliant flavors.

Not everyone has easy access to fresh fruits and vegetables, though, or the dollars often needed to enjoy a local harvest. Strange as it may be, we live in a world where fruits and vegetables produced, packaged and shipped from unseen locations to the shelves of neighborhood grocers are often less expensive and easier to access than those grown nearby. Many of us will never see the farms that produce our produce and are blindly unaware of exactly how the food we eat arrives on our plates.

Fortunately, there are a handful of organizations in the area working to connect families, and in particular young people, with their natural environments. One such organization, CitySprouts, is kicking off the third year of its out-of-school-time program introducing young people to food systems through garden-based learning. This program, complementing CitySprouts’ longstanding in-school partnership program and out-of-school summer program for middle schoolers, works with Boston and Cambridge youth in high-need urban school districts, including those with historically less access to the natural environment. CitySprouts focuses on making experiential garden-based learning accessible to all students.

Students learn about the intersection of ecosystems, food systems and social systems in their communities through project-based activities that draw on science, technology, engineering and math practices. New to this year’s curriculum is a unit focusing on climate change and social justice that offer students an opportunity to comprehend connections between climate disruption and environmental justice. The garden is a nexus, symbolizing the link between food, justice and community. Through these experiences, not only do CitySprouts participants bring home the fruits (and vegetables) of their labor; they bring home an enhanced understanding of food justice and how it affects their communities.

As a psychologist and university faculty member, I spend time in the classroom advocating for kids, adolescents and adults to get out of the classroom, office and house and into urban natural areas. An abundance of research demonstrates not only the psychological benefits associated with consistent time spent in natural environments, but also the social-emotional benefits of working together outdoors. Through collaborative, garden-focused activities, CitySprouts programs provide a safe and nurturing environment for students to share openly, work in teams, deal with conflict and build healthy relationships. Participants develop empathy and skills critical to understanding social injustice.

As board president of CitySprouts, this past summer I hosted one of our summer garden expos – an opportunity for parents, community members, volunteers, teachers, principals and elected officials to see the CitySprouts summer program in action. More importantly, these expos are an opportunity for middle schoolers to showcase what they’ve learned about planting, watering, weeding and harvesting. (Perhaps most importantly, it’s an opportunity for everyone to pick and taste treasures from the garden!)

As I walked around the raised garden beds stopping to admire the sage, basil and mint patches bursting out of the herb garden, one of the middle-school participants approached me with a concerned look on her face and asked, “Do you like fresh basil?” I instantly replied, “Of course.” Without missing a beat she proceeded to tell me all the tasty recipes she can make with fresh basil. Then, returning to her concerned look, she asked why I hadn’t picked any basil from the herb garden. Before I could muster a satisfactory response, she picked a bouquet and handed it to me. “Here you go,” she said, “everyone should have fresh basil.”

In addition to being board president of CitySprouts, Jeffrey Perrin is an associate professor of psychology at Lesley University.