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Maria Castex / Staff Photographer

The first time Meredith Hill, BC '07 and TC '10, took her sixth grade English class at Columbia Secondary School outside, her students were reluctant to get their pants dirty. Since then, some of those students have helped convert a lot at 119th Street and Amsterdam Avenue into a thriving vegetable garden—just one of many sustainability initiatives at the school, located on 123rd Street between Amsterdam and Morningside avenues. Hill, who serves as the school's sustainability coordinator, has been linking sustainability to the urban environment in the school for years. Every June, Hill teaches a class on food and sustainability, through which students visit the Union Square green market, go fishing in the Hudson, and spend a week on an organic farm in upstate New York. They then discuss how to translate what they learned to an urban environment. "Their experience, from getting totally muddy to collecting chicken eggs it blows their minds," Hill said. Last week, the school used the vegetable garden for its first garden-to-cafeteria harvest. The students dug up basil plants, and the school cafeteria used them to prepare pasta with vegetables and pesto. "It was great because the kids got to see that the food they were growing in the garden became what their classmates were eating for lunch," Hill said. The Columbia Secondary School garden is registered with Grow to Learn NYC, the citywide school garden initiative that now includes over 120 schools. Erica Keberle, SIPA '10 and the school's Grow to Learn coordinator, said the opportunity for city children to spend time in a garden is rare. "In NYC we have 1,600 schools and 1.1 million kids. Many of the playgrounds are covered in asphalt," Keberle said. "There often isn't a lot of green space for kids to play in or learn in." Anna Newman, BC '12 and an intern who helps out at the garden, said that those opportunities are especially important for students living in New York. "For kids who live in the city and who've been here their entire lives, the chance to come here and actually get dirty making food is really cool," she said. Both Hill and Newman said that students now feel a sense of ownership over the garden and have even taken an active role in meetings with the Department of Education's school food coordinator. "I've had parents say, 'My child is asking that we shop at the farmers' market' and 'My child let us know that we can use food stamps at the farmers' market,'" Hill said. "There are even kids who say they are cooking for their families." Josh Arky, CC '13 and president of 4local, a campus organization that advocates local and sustainable food, said that such lessons are key when it's easier to get lunch from a fast food restaurant or to pick up foreign produce at a supermarket. "Building awareness from a young age about the state of our agricultural system in this country is becoming increasingly important," Arky said. "The more that happens, the greater the awareness is about these issues, and the more change that can happen." Looking forward, Hill says she wants to make the garden more accessible to the neighborhood and use it to expand the school's composting initiative, in order to keep food waste from the cafeteria out of landfills. The school is also looking for new ways to integrate the garden into the curriculum. "You can go into science class and talk about plant biology or the growing cycle," Newman said. "Even from a social studies perspective, you can look at how food is culturally important and incorporated in our lives. You can incorporate it into every class."

Columbia Secondary School