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As New Leb Takes Shape, So Does Current School’s Garden

Students at New Lebanon School enjoy some quality time outside in their small garden (contributed photo).

By Richard Kaufman 

As the new New Lebanon School continues to grow day by day, so does the small garden nestled along the westside of the current building, thanks in part to the engagement and dedication of the New Leb. community.

The 15-bed plot, which is chock full of various fruit and vegetable plants, such as radishes, chives, red lettuce, strawberries, asparagus, tomatoes, peppers, flowers, herbs, beets and beans, is entirely student run under adult supervision, and is the brainchild of local chef and resident, Geoff Lazlo.

“I’ve spent my entire career in food gardening,” Lazlo said, noting that, while he attended the Culinary Institute of America, he built an organic garden and started an organic garden club. He has always wanted to teach others about the importance of food and gardening in an open forum. “This has always kind of been a personal mission of mine.”

Last year, Lazlo happened to meet New Leb. PTA president, Dana Rodriguez, and the two began discussing a possible partnership. Lazlo already had a community garden at a nearby church.

“I thought this was a natural fit for the community,” Rodriguez said.

Several meetings between Lazlo, Rodriguez and New Leb. principal, Barbara Riccio, were held last fall, and the garden at the church was moved to New Leb. this spring so the students could be more involved.

The New Leb garden features various delicious fruits and vegetables (contributed photo).

The garden, or New Lebanon’s Farm to Byram Program as it’s called, is more than just about growing and harvesting crops. The students are able to get a multi-faceted, hands-on educational experience, and the hope is that they’ll take what they’ve learned home to their parents to introduce and reinforce healthy habits.

“All of us got together and decided we really wanted to make a substantial garden for lots of reasons,” Riccio said. “Chef Geoff is really interested in food politics, so to speak, and how the world works around food. We’re interested in the scientific and the educational components. A lot of the parents are interested in the nutritional component. For us, it just seemed like such a nice place to focus our energies.”

Lazlo said the program touches on finance, food policy, nutrition, cooking and the science of growing and agriculture. “We’re not just going to come out and play in the dirt,” he said.

Lazlo comes into school every Thursday to teach the curriculum to fourth graders, and helps run an after-school program for all students on Tuesdays with Rodriguez, fourth-grade teacher, Kate Frey, and volunteer, Teri Galluccio.

Students work cohesively on various tasks in order to maintain the garden. They’re responsible for things like planting, weeding, watering, germinating and research.

Everything, including plant growth and hours spent on the garden, is tracked and charted by the students in Google Docs and Google Sheets.

“It’s a dream come true. It’s unbelievable,” Lazlo said of his experience with the students so far. “I think that my concern was if the kids would buy in to wanting to be part of this and doing it, and they exceeded expectations in how enthusiastic they were about adopting this program. I feel that I’m now having to rush to keep up with them where they’re not rushing to keep up with me.”

Hank van Schaik, a student at New Leb., said he likes being involved with the garden because it gives him something to do rather than just going home after school. He said he quickly had his mother sign his permission slip so he could get started.

“I really like it because it gives me a chance to try something new. Now I’m trying new things food-wise, and it’s really helpful,” he said.

Often times, Lazlo will use ingredients from the garden to make nutritional snacks, like salads or different colored smoothies, for the students with no added sugar. 

“There isn’t really a supermarket right here [in Byram]. There’s mostly delis on the corner, so kids don’t really have a sense of where food comes from and why it’s important to eat nutritious foods,” Riccio said. 

Students are also allowed to bring the fruits and vegetables home for their parents to cook and incorporate into meals.

Fifth grader, Kendra Bobes, said she enjoys monitoring and tracking how well the plants are growing.

“When I come out here, I like to see the progress [the plants have] made and how some things are different from what they were originally when they were seedlings,” she said. “I like this program. It reminds me of my home in Peru. We used to have a huge garden. Coming to the United States, I didn’t have that opportunity, so this program helped me have a little bit of home.”

Students standing in front of one of their garden beds at New Leb. (Contributed Photo)

This year’s garden will run through the summer and will hopefully culminate with a mini-farmers’ market, where the students will be able to harvest crops, sell them, and track inventory.

Over this past winter, New Leb. applied for and was recently awarded with a $20,000 Reaching Out Grant from the Greenwich Alliance for Education to continue funding in the months ahead. The GAE helps to fund innovation and programs that inspire and focus on underserved students in the community.

“We will be providing the funding for the purchasing of many materials and supplies and everything for the coming year to keep it going,” said GAE Executive Director, Julie Faryniarz. 

“Our feeling behind this was, any way you can engage a student in their education and get them hooked in to something exciting, it’s going to elevate them in their academics and just in their enjoyment of things. [The garden] plays to the character of the school, which is really a community school.”

Lazlo hopes that after the growing season is over late this fall, the students can put together a public presentation to showcase what they’ve learned and how the garden has impacted them. Lazlo admitted that his dream would be to have a garden in every school in Greenwich, but right now, his focus is on establishing and refining the one at New Leb.

“This is the start,” said Special Education teacher, Chris Carlin, who will help run the summer program. “We’re excited to build on this and see where it goes in a few years. I think the potential is unlimited.”

Since New Lebanon School is a recognized International Baccalaureate School, each year fifth graders undertake a special project called an “exhibition” in which they take their learning and bring it to action.

Next year, in the brand new school that’s being built next door, fifth graders will use the garden as their project.

“This is perfect. We want the students to be actionable, to harvest, and to actually share with other people in the town of Greenwich and other students their age,” Riccio said. 

“It’s sort of much bigger than just a nice little community garden. We want to keep this going for a number of years.”

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