“I’m scared,” said London Torrence, poised above the box. Wearing a jacket with a faux-fur lined hood, she stood in the November-morning air with the rest of Mrs. Fineran’s fifth grade class. They were moments from plunging their hands into the dirt and completing a cycle they had begun months before, when the cooling weather signaled it was time to put the lettuce seedlings in the soil.
In the days before its Thanksgiving feast, Hollin Meadows Elementary students gathered their harvest: bags and bags of lettuce — Romaine, Bibb, Boston and salad bowl mix — from special “earthboxes” donated to them by the American Horticultural Society and The Growing Connection, a project of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization to expose schoolchildren across the world to the health benefits of eating fresh vegetables. The plastic boxes were developed to allow gardening in urban settings where farmland and water are scarce. Instead of pouring water on top of the dirt, where much of it evaporates, the box, which is about two feet long and foot wide, has a pipe that plunges through the potting soil to a reservoir that lets the plants draw up water as needed.
THE GROWING CONNECTION has programs in nine countries: the Dominican Republic, Ghana, Jamaica, Kenya, Mexico, Nicaragua, Senegal, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the United States. Jessica Rozmus, who coordinates the Growing Connection partnership for AHS, said the project is particularly satisfying because students in Hollin Meadows have roots in many of those countries.
The Growing Connection tries to connect students from different countries as they work on their agricultural common denominator. Hollin Meadows is partnered with the Gulf Coast School for the Deaf in Ghana. But that school’s lack of internet access has made it hard to keep in close touch. Shawn Akard, a Hollin Meadows parent and avid gardener who coordinates the project for the school, suggested that when the growing season ends and the winter cold keeps students inside, they might create a book about their school to send to their Ghanaian counterparts.
But on the cloud-swept morning in November, London and her classmates were happy to be outside. Akard organized them into teams to divide the labor of pulling bursting heads of lettuce from the soil, picking cabbage worms, snipping roots and rinsing the leaves in a bucket before putting them in bags.
“Why is it not coming out?” Tommy Petrus asked in frustration, as he and several other classmates hauled on one enormous lettuce head. When the roots finally eased their grip and the head gave way, he called out a triumphant, “Ayah!”
Holding his lettuce by its white root, Petrus considered the universal implications of the day’s activity. “It’s like, food. If you don’t have food, you can just be a farmer. If you’re poor, you can just farm, grow carrots and cabbage and stuff.”
TARA GROSS, THE MOTHER of a 6th grade student and a gardening volunteer, said the students were skeptical months ago when first told to plant the seedlings. “Now we’ve actually done something full circle, from planting to harvest, so now they get it.”
She added that she looked forward to seeing the school’s kindergarten class grow up with the gardens, spending seven years planting and harvesting.
Akard said the garden always has a lesson for students at any grade level. For a second-grade class learning about adaptation, she gathered them around a cabbage, and asked them to notice how “the dreaded cabbage worm” exactly mimicked the color of leaves it shredded and how its body hid perfectly along the leaf’s spine.
She recalled the crisp morning she took a fourth-grade class out to the earth boxes. The dew had formed “perfect” droplets that sparkled on the small veins and ridges of each leaf. “The kids were just glued to the leaves,” she said. “They had never looked that closely at a leaf with dew on it.”
“What is harvesting?” She asks her students. “How does that play into what fall is about?”
Amy McMillen, the U.N.F.A.O.’s program coordinator for the Growing Connection, stood beside the constantly replenishing salad cart in Hollin Meadows’ cafeteria, watching as the school community celebrated America’s communal harvest festival.
She said that in other countries, a lack of access to fresh vegetables impedes people’s consumption of the nutritious food, but in America, it’s a surplus of alternatives. “Here it’s a problem of access to too many things,” McMillen said. She looked approvingly around the room, where parents sat with their children, eating turkey and mashed potatoes. Photos from the previous days’ harvest were being projected on a screen. From hand to hand, the diners passed the plates of fresh green salad that had been placed at the center of each circular table.
“When they grow food themselves they want to try it and they want to learn all the different ways they can cook it, eat it and perpetuate it,” McMillen said, noting that the room was filled with messages about sharing meals together, the central importance of the table and thankfulness for fundamental things, like a good harvest.
At one table, 5th grader Amira Bilaf said she didn’t learn that the fruits she bought at the grocery store grew on trees until her first grade teacher taught the subject in class. “It’s really cool because you get to eat it,” she said of her gardening experience. “That’s the best part about it.”
Destiny Webb said she liked pulling the lettuce from the dirt and dipping it into the bucket of water. “Then when we get it the next day it’s all fresh.”
“I thought it was going to be boring at first, but it was fun,” added classmate Tyquan Whiting. “We got to get messy.”