Fairfield County gardening programs teach nutrition, integrated pest management and life skills

The Fairfield County Extension Center Demonstration Garden
The Fairfield County Extension Center Demonstration Garden

The Fairfield County Extension Center hosts a variety of gardening programs, and the season just past was a successful and bountiful one.

With the support of a five-year grant from USDA/NIFA’s Children,  Family, and Youth at Risk Program (CYFAR), Edith Valiquette, 4-H youth development educator, coordinates an urban 4-H garden program for sixth through eighth grade students at Barnum Elementary School in Bridgeport. German Cutz, associate extension educator, serves as principal investigator for the grant.

Students attend the program four hours each week during the school year and eight hours a week during the summer. The curriculum focuses on gardening, workforce readiness and technology.

Students learn about nutrition, gardening and healthy meal preparation while working together as a group. They explore agriculture by visiting local farms and participate in community service projects. Students designed, filmed and edited videos to teach healthy eating and used these guides to mentor younger students. Students also participated in a Christmas program presented in nursing homes.

“The program allows kids to have fun while learning valuable skills such as leadership and life skills,” says Valiquette. “The program brings these 4-H opportunities to urban neighborhoods.”

The group produced 2,000 pounds of vegetables in 24 raised beds. Their carrots won Best of Show at the Fairfield County 4-H Fair. A portion of the harvested produce is used for cooking classes, while the remainder is sent home with students to supplement family meals.

Fairfield County Extension Center Demonstration GardenAs part of the workforce readiness component of the program, students have the opportunity earn a stipend. Points are earned daily: one point for punctuality and one point for behavior (teamwork, etc.). At the end of the quarter, points are totaled and students earned a stipend based on points earned that quarter. Parents say the stipend helps to motive their children and gives them a sense of accomplishment. Many of the students use the stipend to pay for clothing or other school supplies.

UConn and Wholesome Wave sponsor weekly nutrition lessons facilitated by several educators, including Heather Peracchio, assistant extension educator (SNAP-Ed), and FoodCorps volunteer Madison Weizel.

Students are involved in every aspect of the program. Over fifty students participated in Food Corps cooking classes, with more than two dozen students graduating from Cooking Matters. The students are excited to share new recipes and create healthy meals at home.

A sister program in Windham is coordinated by extension educators Karen Filchak and Mary Ellen Welch at Windham Middle School, where the students named their program Healthy Hands.

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Master Gardener Julia Cencebaugh Kloth serves as coordinator for the Fairfield County Extension Center Demonstration Gardens, a 3,500-square-foot display of garden beds, container gardens and pathway, designed by volunteer Master Gardeners. The garden also boasts fruit trees, a small pumpkin patch and compost bins.

In 2014, the group harvested 31 different vegetables and fruits, delivering weekly produce to five local food pantries. A team of eight Master Gardeners works the plot, each averaging between 40 to 100 hours throughout the season. Duties include planning and preparation, spring planting, daily maintenance, harvesting and fall clean up.

“I’m very proud of the work they do to keep the gardens pristine,” says Kloth. “They apply university research to their garden practices, following the tenets of integrated pest management.”

Team captains Hillary Gurdon and Lou Menendez organize the volunteers. Gurdon designed the garden in the European potager style, a French term for ornamental or kitchen garden, designed to create intensive, attractive and practical gardens that promote organic methods such as encouraging beneficial insects for pest control. Menendez, a master gardener and talented craftsman, works on many of the construction aspects of the garden.

During the harvest season, volunteers run a farmers market on site and are delighted to assist the public with hands-on garden tips. The site also serves as a living classroom for extension nutritionists. “The garden has been an amazing teaching ground for all of us involved, including interns and Master Gardeners working at the Fairfield office,” Kloth says.

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Fairfield Country Extension Center Demonstration GardenThis December, eleven Hispanic adult students from Danbury will be the first to receive certificates of completion from the Urban Agriculture and IPM Extension course created by German Cutz. The course is a year-round program designed to promote agriculture in a way that provides urban neighborhoods with fresh, healthy and affordable food.

The curriculum integrates classroom instruction, hands-on vegetable production and entrepreneurship. Students were taught four modules: botany, vegetable production, entomology and integrated pest management. All students needed to pass exams at the completion of each module and a final exam at the end of the program that included questions from all four modules. Ana Legrand, assistant extension professor in the Department of Plant Science and Landscape Architecture, is a co-PI in the urban agriculture project. Legrand teaches the IPM and entomology modules.

Students prepare, plant and harvest an organic one-acre garden in New Milford and operate a stand at the Danbury Farmers’ Market. This year, they produced more than 4000 pounds of produce, providing low-cost food for recipients of supplemental food programs offered at Connecticut farmers markets.

Since its inception, the project has taken on a life of its own. The graduating students have elected a temporary board and are planning to apply for a 501(c)3 (non-profit status) to keep working on urban agriculture. They are creating a business plan to increase their production and expand the size of the garden site. The graduates serve as mentors for upcoming students and have become recruiters for the program. They hope to continue partnering with UConn Extension to create sustainability in their community.

“This provides such a sense of accomplishment for these students,” says Cutz. “Some of them have graduated from high school and are really proud to be completing a UConn course.” The program targets an under-served urban Hispanic population. A mere one percent of Connecticut’s Hispanic population (14.7 percent of the total population) are involved in agriculture.

“We are also providing a well-trained labor force for local farmers,” Cutz says. Some of the local farm owners have shown interest in hiring the graduates.

The project is funded through a two-year grant form the Northeast IPM Center.

By Kim Markesich

 

 


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