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Up on the roof: carrots & peppers - Students at PS 257 development rooftop garden through United Nations program

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Thanks to the school’s participation in a worldwide United Nations food and educational program, an otherwise drab roof area on P.S. 257 (60 Cook Street) is now home to an unlikely garden sprouting carrots, peppers and basil in the middle of a neighborhood notoriously deprived of fresh produce.

Called The Growing Connection (TGC), the program was developed by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the Untied Nations. The program seeks to take a small step to address the problems of world hunger by teaching students to grow and harvest sustainable food gardens.

The garden on the roof of PS 257 is comprised of “Earthboxes,” small 30 x 13 x 13-inch boxes designed to be water-efficient and user-friendly. The Earthboxes were planted before the summer by the students and nursed during the summer by the school’s custodial staff.

“What these kids are doing is learning to produce,” said Bob Patterson of the Washington, D.C.- headquartered TGC, at the program’s unveiling last Thursday.

“We’re not saying that these kids are going to be farmers one day, but either way, they’ll appreciate what goes into it.”

Said Maya-Ange Veras, one of 100 PS 257 who participated in the program: “My favorite thing was growing the basil and cilantro, stuff you take home to eat. It was a little hard – you had to know how much water to put in. But now we know how to do it.”

The program was brought to the school by Betty Cooney, executive director of the Graham Avenue Business Improvement District, which runs a farmer’s market in the school’s courtyard. Cooney used part of grant obtained from Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez to establish the program – which costs around $3,000 – in the school.

“It’s not that expensive a program, but it can really do so much. It teaches these kids that food doesn’t come from a supermarket – somebody has to grow it. It really gives them a much broader understanding of the world,” Cooney said.

TGC has school and community sites in 12 countries around the world. Since joining the program, PS 257 students are communicating with their counterparts across the globe, further enhancing the project’s educational benefits.

“What these kids are doing is the same as what they’re doing in the developing world,” said Amy McMillent of TGC. “Access to fresh produce is a big problem in the city just as it is in those places. And these kids are providing access to fresh produce.”

Currently, the garden on the roof is fairly modest, a small cluster of greenery in the middle of a gray expanse. But Melvin Martinez, assistant principal of PS 257, has ambitious plans for the garden.

“We’re looking to expand this. In a couple of years, it will look spectacular,” he said.

Councilwoman Diana Reyna, who on Friday helped open a new community garden at South 4th Street and Hewes Street, said, “Hopefully, this is part of a district-wide attempt to get more fresh produce. The kids in this neighborhood have to be exposed to much more than four walls.”

Reyna and the others wanted to expose PS 257 students to a feeling best described at the unveiling by Alexa Pinsker, one of the school’s teachers who helped with the plantings.

“It’s a wonderful feeling to get your hands in the soil, to smell that soil,” she said.

Updated 11:48 am, January 16, 2019
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