I remember being impressed and amazed during my first tour of Horace Mann Elementary School. I was greeted in the lobby by the sound of the peaceful trickle of water behind a wall of luscious vegetation, and charmed throughout the hallways by student-created signs encouraging energy conservation. My elementary school as a child was certainly not this advanced; it’s incredible that these students will learn the importance of connecting with nature from an early age. The school’s mission is to celebrate curiosity, connection, community, and environmental and nature education. There are native gardens, lots of green spaces and a very sunny and biophilic architectural design. I chose this organization as my CSLP site because, as an Environmental Science major, I am particularly interested in sustainable food and agriculture systems, which is also a part of Horace Mann’s programs. I have been connecting my volunteer work to my International Food and Agriculture Politics course, a Special Topics section of SISU-350.
Horace Mann has a Garden to Table Program to teach students about the importance of local, fresh and healthy food. In the program, crops are planted and cultivated in the indoor Messy Lab and when the plants are ready, the students have the opportunity to plant them outside at Mann Farms and learn to care for them. Herbs, lettuce and other greens are also grown indoors and on the rooftop with aeroponic towers (a vertical gardening technology), and these greens are used to make a weekly salad for the students. I have been volunteering as an intern in the Garden to Table Program, where I inspect and maintain the crops growing on aeroponic towers, plant and care for seed trays under grow lights, and help the flow of crop movement and growth go smoothly. I also help out with the vermicompost, in which vegetable and plant waste decompose, combined with newspaper, occasional water mist, and earthworms to help move things along. The worms eventually create a nutrient-rich material that can be used as sustainable fertilizer in the farms. I maintained and inspected the compost bin with other interns.
Going into this program, I was hoping to learn about the physical experience of growing food and working with plants and about the actual process of sustainable farming. In several courses, I have learned theories in support of local food, sustainable and urban farming, community engagement, and the viability of new technologies like the aeroponic towers at Horace Mann, so the desire to be a part of these things in a hands-on, outside-of-the-classroom way is what brought me to volunteer at Horace Mann. Because of fluctuating weather patterns this season, we haven’t gotten to transplant any crops into the outdoor plots yet, so I haven’t had the chance to dig in the dirt outside, but my expectation of learning the inner workings of vertical systems was certainly met.
It has been really exciting and inspiring to work in a community that prioritizes critical issues of healthy, fresh and nutritious food and sustainable agriculture. It has been especially interesting to see how urban agriculture systems function; they are very time and energy intensive. It takes organization to keep charts and logs of every propagated crop, it takes attention to detail to inspect each seedling and survey the health of newborn tomato plants, and it takes time to place one pepper seed a quarter of an inch deep in each of 108 Rockwool cubes. This experience has allowed me to understand more about the content I discuss in class; now, rather than just thinking of aeroponic towers as a futuristic solution to all of our problems of agriculture, I know how it really works, what goes into it, and the complex planning, knowledge, and care that is required for vertical farming.
But the effort I put in has been worth the reward: seeing children get excited about worms, plants, and especially the chicks and chickens that were added to the program just a few weeks ago. There’s something fulfilling about seeing and smelling several towers of lush, flourishing basil that just a month ago was a seed in an unopened packet, and watching that cycle come full circle, knowing that the students will be eating fresh, organic pesto next week, and knowing that I had a part in making that happen.