Sustainable Jersey: In a zombie apocalypse, it’s good to know where your food comes from

July 20, 2016

SJ JPS High Garden

The John P. Stevens High School Greenhouse opens a world of opportunities in Edison.


Laura Holborow begins the food science unit in the biology class she teaches at John P. Stevens High School the same way, by asking, “Where does your food come from?”

Students answer, ‘the supermarket’,” said Holborow, an environmental science and biology teacher at the Edison Township school. “I’m on a mission to teach where food comes from, before it gets to the store. To pique student interest, I like to mention that knowing how to grow food is a key survival skill in the event of a zombie apocalypse,” she added with a laugh.

SJ JPS Garden 1

Holborow is a member of a creative team of sustainably-minded individuals who have brought a greenhouse project to John P. Stevens High School. The project was made possible through a partnership between Edison Township, Edison Township Public Schools and the John P. Stevens High School located in Middlesex County, New Jersey.

Much like a traditional barn raising, the greenhouse has brought out the best in this community. The 30-foot by 60-foot greenhouse was constructed with the support and participation of teachers, school administrators, school district and township staff, residents, students, funders and community group members.

The greenhouse has five raised growing beds including one that meets ADA accessibility needs. It is equipped with running water, electricity, a hydroponics system and drip irrigation. Outside the greenhouse, an additional eight growing beds are overflowing with organic vegetables, spices and flowers.

Meredith J. Quick, assistant principal at John P. Stevens High School and a greenhouse team member explained, “In the not too distant past, families had a much stronger and healthier connection with their food. With the addition of this greenhouse we provide a learning environment that allows students to actively participate and fully understand where food comes from, and so much more.”

Assistant Principal Quick is no stranger to food production; she grew up on an 800-head dairy farm in Somerset, New Jersey.

SJ JPS Garden 2

Beware of Falling Cucumbers and Disappearing Strawberries: For many of the students, this is the first time they have used a shovel or watched the growth of a rampant cucumber vine like the one that has stretched to the greenhouse roof. The students like to speculate on the odds of being hit by a falling cucumber. One student was waiting for the carrots to grow, but she was not seeing any visible progress. She was surprised to learn that carrots grow underground.

Assistant Principal Quick said, “The strawberries disappear fast around here but it’s ok. I love that the kids are excited about the produce and I encourage them to enjoy the strawberries.”

Beyond the feat of funding and constructing the greenhouse, the educational applications of the project are also impressive. The greenhouse will provide a cross curricular opportunity to grow food that all of the 2,300 students will use in cooking classes, investigate in scientific studies and share with the community.

SJ JPS Garden3

Worm Wigwams to Genetics for the Environmental Science and Biology Classes: Students in environmental science classes will study the process of photosynthesis in action, collect water from rain barrels to water the plants and facilitate and implement the use of worm wigwams in the cafeteria for students and staff to reduce waste. The worm wigwams will turn garbage into fertile soil that will be used in the greenhouse.

Biology students will analyze various aspects of genetics, photosynthesis and biodiversity. Students will investigate inheritance trends by planting “Wisconsin Fast Plants” for a hands-on approach to genetics, conduct experiments to further understand the process of photosynthesis and cross pollinate plants to explore how traits are passed through generations.

Farm to Table Learning for the Culinary Arts Classes: The culinary arts classes will experience the farm to table concept by growing the produce and spices they will use in their cooking. Local farmers will teach students a variety of farming techniques to encourage a more plentiful yield of fruits and vegetables. To help support the greenhouse, students will cook with the produce, creating breads, pies and salads to sell to the community.

SJ JPS Garden 4

Greenhouse Maintenance and Farm Stand Operation by the Students in the Multiply Disabled Program: “The students in our Multiply Disabled program have been involved in the project since we broke ground,” said John P. Stevens Special Education Teacher and Greenhouse Team Member, Marissa Freeman. “They’ve planted, pruned, weeded, watered, harvested and as of last week, sold the greenhouse produce at the John P. Stevens Farm Stand. I could never have imagined that I would be a part of a greenhouse project. It’s a phenomenal effort that opens new doors for how we teach.”

The students in the Multiply Disabled program will assist with maintaining the greenhouse and operating the farm stand. Working closely with the community and their peers, counting money and advertising, maintaining budgets and financing, as well as keeping inventory of products will provide students the opportunity to practice life skills in real-life settings.

In addition, the greenhouse produce will be used by the ShopRite Supermarket Careers program at Edison High School, a self-sustaining supermarket run by students with disabilities. The high school art department is designing a logo for the farm stand and the students in the Multiply Disabled program plan to use the designs to create apparel and accessories to be worn by farm stand employees and marketed to community members.

Sharing the Harvest: When the team realized that the greenhouse would yield more produce than the high school could consume, the group shifted the learning goal to focus on how the students could influence the health and wellness in the local community.

In the new school year, the team will focus on bringing free and affordable produce and education about farm-to-table eating to the community at large. They are putting together a program for Supplementary Nutritional Assistance Program funding and applying for grants to get the program started. The goal is for families that receive Supplementary Nutritional Assistance Program services through the state of New Jersey to receive weekly free produce, community members to have access to organic produce at a low cost and for excess produce to be donated directly to local food pantries.

Grant Writing and Fundraising: The greenhouse project is being funded through events, grants and donations. In the past year, fundraising and donations totaled $17,000 and awarded grants totaled $22,000. The project was strengthened when Edison Township partnered with the Edison Township Public School District to find funding. Chris Mazauskas, Edison Township’s resource development officer, collaborated with Assistant Principal Meredith Quick to write grants and develop the coalition of partners.

Chris Mazauskas, in addition to leading and founding the Edison Sustainable Jersey Green Team, explained that he has a personal connection to the greenhouse; he said, “My father was a first generation Lithuanian-American who was raised on a farm near Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. When I was growing up in Irvington, he worked hard as a warehouseman and truck driver for Budweiser in Newark. We always had a big garden and he instilled in me the importance of tending the yield. I want the students to experience what I had growing up–a connection to and appreciation of home-grown vegetables, herbs and fruit.”

Mazauskas led the proposal effort that resulted in Edison Township receiving a $20,000 Sustainable Jersey Small Grant funded by the PSEG Foundation. This grant provided momentum and funded a major piece of the greenhouse project.

The John P. Stevens school community including the Classes of 2013 and 2014 and the Edison Parent Teacher Organization raised $15,000 in donations. Fiskars Corporation provided a grant to pay for gardening tools. BASF Corporation provided a grant for supplies and the Kean University Horticulture Program donated seedlings and organic fertilizer. The full funders list is located here.

The list of community supporters, includes: Edison Clean Communities Program, Edison Township Environmental Commission, Edison Sustainable Jersey Green Team, Edison Open Space Advisory Commission, Edison Greenways Group, Edison Wetlands Association, Rutgers University Horticultural Therapy Program, Edison Township Public Schools, Triple C Farms, Liberty Farm, Kean University Horticultural Program, the John P. Stevens Students for Environmental Awareness and the John P. Stevens National Honor Society.

The Edison Clean Communities Program and the Edison Township Environmental Commission were among the first partners and financial supporters of the project; both organizations made $1,000 donations.

>>To donate to the John P. Stevens Greenhouse, go to: JPS Greenhouse

Also, the Sustainable Jersey for Schools Small Grants program will be announcing new grant opportunities this year, so dream big, develop your partners and sign-up for Sustainable Jersey for Schools updates to get the latest news on available grants.

Donna Drewes
Donna Drewes

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