Flowers come in all different shapes and sizes, but rarely do they come in the form of small children.
“Today you’re an apple flower,” Melinda Rabbit DeFeo, of Island Grown Schools, said as her student petals stood around her in Chilmark earlier this week. The Edgartown fourth grade had traveled to the home of Peter Norris to pick apples and learn how they grow.
“I’m a bee, I’m getting pollen all over you. I’m drinking some nectar and it’s so yummy,” Mrs. DeFeo said making her way through the students.
Each student was assigned a different part of the plant — filaments, stigmas, petals — and one by one they quietly floated away, or, they being fourth graders, somersaulted to another part of the room. Eventually, all that remained was the pistil, aka Mrs. DeFeo.
The Roxbury Russet apples picked earlier in the morning were then cut into slivers and handed out. Students bit into the apple slices and described their experience.
“Oh my God, this is so sweet!”
“How do you spell beautiful?”
These interactions have become increasingly common as the Island Grown Initiative (IGI) and Island Grown Schools have taken root in classrooms, grocery stores and dinner table conversations across the Island. Young children racing to the salad bar is no longer a crazy notion and asking for more kale chips at the school lunch counter has become not just a possibility but something done with enthusiasm.
Education and advocacy have been the core of IGI’s mission, in particular creating better eating habits by educating people of all ages about their role in the food system and advocating for healthier meals in schools.
This Sunday, Oct. 23, there will be a benefit concert for the organization held at the high school Performing Arts Center. The concert will feature The Daytrippers, a Beatles cover band comprised of local musicians, many of whom are parents seeing firsthand how their children are benefiting from the new initiatives.
IGI is not just focused on schools, though. Over the years the program has grown to include five major programs — schools, meat, poultry, bees and gleaning — with more to come. Its mission has evolved over the years to better suit Vineyard needs, leaders within IGI say, but the big picture has remained the same.
“I think of it as a conversation, a call and response,” founder and former director Ali Berlow said this week. “It’s been fluid and strategic in its response. I think the strategies are in its culture, to take small steps that can make big differences and go from there.”
The original vision was to support local farmers, “a unique vision in a way because it came from a group of eaterswho wanted to support the people who grow the food,” she said.
It all started at a potluck dinner in May 2005 hosted by Ms. Berlow, where a group of people from the Island “food web” came together to ask what sustainability meant to them. From that dinner a farm map was created, listing all of the Vineyard farms and their products.
A mobile chicken processing unit was then introduced, and in a few years the number of chickens being raised on the Island for eating went from 200 to 5,000. With the increasing popularity of the chicken processing unit, IGI saw another void in the Vineyard agriculture landscape and in June of 2010 received a $40,000 grant to study what it would take to have a four-legged slaughtering facility, either mobile or permanent.
IGI’s current director, Sarah McKay, said the feasibility study is nearly complete and IGI hopes to begin the permitting and design process this winter, with possible groundbreaking in a year.
Ms. McKay said the organization and the Vineyard have come a long way from knowing where the farms are to knowing their farmers names.
“In the beginning the efforts of IGI were about encouraging people to grow more,” she said in the IGI office upstairs at Cronig’s Market in Vineyard Haven. “Now we have lots of [ideas] going but everything has matured to a level so the issues are more around distribution, competitiveness, specifically trying to encourage farmers to specialize more in certain things so everyone’s not growing squash and zucchini at the same time on the Island.”
Ms. McKay said there are still pieces missing to the IGI footprint, including a fishing program and maybe even a communal commercial kitchen. Several programs have taken off this year, including an apprenticeship program this summer where two young farmers worked at different Vineyard farms; a business plan and farm management piece was also part of the apprenticeship.
The relatively new gleaning program has also been a huge success. Volunteers pick leftover farm crops that would have otherwise gone to waste and distribute them to the schools, food pantries and senior centers. They’ve yielded 15,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables so far this season alone.
There’s still work to be done, Ms. McKay said, and much of that will be in education.
“Our relationship with the farming community and with the schools is really going to keep us honest and real to what it is we do,” she said.
The Island Grown Schools program works directly with each Vineyard school to teach sustainability through a structured curriculum — high school Irish history students grow potatoes and elementary students learning about American Indians grow corn, for example.
Even though all Island schools have gardens on campus (including the preschools starting in November), this is the first year every school has Island sourced produce in their cafeterias regularly; every school will also have special lunches made from all Vineyard ingredients.
There are now five farms selling regularly to the schools. Island Grown Schools coordinator Noli Hoye Taylor said this is having an impact on the farms’ year-round productivity.
“It’s changing the way farmers are growing and thinking about the growing season,” she said. “There’s so much demand from cafeterias there’s a reason to try and grow further into winter and earlier in spring.”
The schools initiative is so successful that groups from across the country are looking to the Vineyard program as a model. Mrs. Taylor said organizations from Connecticut, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Falmouth, Nantucket and as far away as Puerto Rico are all interested in the IGI schools program.
“Kids not only have the opportunity to eat well but it’s a combination of work in the classrooms, gardens, farm field trips, paired with the cafeterias that make it so kids really want to eat fresh produce,” she said. “It’s really inspiring to see that combination of things work and helping children now develop these eating habits for their future. It bodes so well for them and our farms.”
The Daytrippers benefit concert for the Island Grown Initiative begins at 7 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 23 at the high school Performing Arts Center. The evening will be emceed by WMVY hosts Laurel Reddington and Ray Whitaker and include special guests Jeremy Berlin, Wes Nagy and a full horn section. Tickets are $15 for general admission, $10 for seniors and $7 for students and are available at ticketsmv.com/daytrippers or at the door.