By Lois Rogers | Correspondent
Isaiah Dunn, an eighth grader in St. Gregory the Great Academy, Hamilton Square, said he always enjoyed school visits to area farms in nearby West Windsor and Howell. But the special Farm to School Day, in which the farms were brought to his school Feb. 13, was something he found to be quite impressive.
For one thing, Dunn noted that the live chickens that were brought into Ferrante Hall surely helped the Farm to School Day get off to a lively start. The first session began at 8:30 a.m. for kindergarten to fourth grade students, while a second session, during which fifth through eighth grade students rotated among nine farm stations, followed later in the morning.
Dunn, who attended both sessions, enjoyed being among the older students who got to play educational games that helped the smaller kids understand the importance of Mason bees and bumblebees. The insects which play such a vital role as pollinators, were spotlighted as were many of the crops destined to become food found in the cafeteria, on family tables and in area supermarkets.
“It’s really important for little kids to learn about how their food gets here,” Dunn said. And that, precisely, was the intention of this Farm to School Day, organized by the Green Team in St. Gregory the Great Parish.
The Green Team was formed at the behest of Father Michael McClane, parish pastor, in response to Laudato Si, Pope Francis’ encyclical which calls for respectful and responsible care of God’s creation. Green Team is led by Priscilla Hayes, the parish garden coordinator and environmentalist. Among its goals is developing an environmental action plan for the parish and the academy.
At the recommendation of Father McClane, the team’s first major initiative was creating an abundant community garden to help mitigate area hunger with Farm to School and teach students into how food comes to the table, Father McClane said.
“We live in such a technical age. It’s important for the students to be able to make the connection, to get more of an understanding of God as the creator. We have to help them learn about how the food grows,” he said.
“The idea was to help the students understand that food isn’t grown in the supermarkets,” said academy principal, Dr. Jason C. Briggs. “It’s to show a whole different side of food production and the critical roles farmers play.”
With this in mind, the planning team went right to the source to show exactly how that is done: the farming families of the Trenton Diocese. And because of this, the 425 students in St. Gregory the Great Academy were able to glean insights from the members of nine families who devote themselves to planting the fields, operating the barns and stables and harvesting much of the bounty raised in central New Jersey.
The young people also got to hear about the importance of locally sourced food from area farms from Douglas Fisher, New Jersey’s Secretary of Agriculture, and Carrie Lindig, the state conservationist.
For the morning-long event, the Green Team had transformed Ferrante Hall into a comprehensive reflection of what the students can expect when they visit one of the many area farms. The dynamic program gave insight on the complex life of farmers and their wives who have to be, as it was explained: organizers, planners and planters, harvesters and marketers.
The kids were able to see, if “only through images and props,” as Hayes wrote on the parish Green Team page, “some of the non-human creatures who make it possible to have local fresh produce and other farm products.”
Among the members of the farming families the students encountered was Marilyn Russo, who was there representing not only her family’s Orchard Lane Farm in Chesterfield, but the New Jersey Farm Bureau’s Women’s Committee.
Russo, who serves on many state and local agricultural boards, has a long association with St. Gregory the Great Academy, speaking on the benefits of locally grown food over the years and welcoming the students to the family farm, which the family has been doing for more than 20 years.
Russo shared her enthusiasm for the Farm to School venture and hopes it will be around for years to come. “Everyone wants fresh food,” said Russo, noting that her family has been farming for three generations. She noted that when the first ears of corn are picked each year, her husband, Nicholas Russo, Jr., presents them formally, “as if they were treasures of the earth.”
Everyone, including kids, she said, needs to know where those treasures come from.