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Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Project Sprout: From A Humble Idea, A Garden Grows

by Sam Levin at the Slow Food USA blog

Sam Levin is one of three co-founders, along with Sarah Steadman and Natalie Akers, of Project Sprout, an organic, student-run garden on the grounds of Monument High School in Great Barrington, Mass. Now in its second year, Project Sprout supplies the school’s cafeteria with fresh fruits and vegetables, helps feed the hungry in the community and serves as a living laboratory for students of the Monument school system.

Sam, a Sophomore at Monument, gave a speech at the opening ceremony of Terra Madre ‘08 in Italy, and inspired thousands of delegates from around the world who traveled to Turin for the event. The Slow Food USA blog is thrilled to share his remarks with our readers.

Exactly one year ago Monday, I walked through the doors of my public high school in Massachusetts planning on presenting the idea of Project Sprout to my Guidance counselor. And that’s all it was, an idea. I had not one detail worked out, only that I wanted the students of my school and the people of my community to begin paying more attention to their food, and in turn the natural world around them. I was already an avid naturalist, and when I wasn’t in the woods or swamps, I was spending time on the farm down the road from my house, playing soccer with the pigs or riding the cows. So, after talking to my guidance counselor, Mr. Powell, I connected with two other students, Sarah a junior who loved gardening and children and Natalie a sophomore who was desperate for delicious vegetables in the cafeteria, and together we began refining the idea and figuring out the details of the project. Within weeks we had a plan.

The plan was simple. Create a student-run organic vegetable garden on school grounds, that would be used as an educational tool for students ages 2-18, provide delicious produce for the school lunches, and ultimately build connections with nature and food for the children of our district. And with that plan, along with some energy, excitement, and motivation, we began working towards our goal.

We met with local farmers and gardeners, landscapers and designers, teachers and groundskeepers. We worked with non-profit leaders and most importantly, we worked together. I couldn’t walk by Mr. Powell’s office without stopping in to talk to him. Sarah and Natalie and I met in between classes and during lunch, after school and before school. Although we hadn’t even known each other before October, as time went on, our relationship became unbreakable. As we know, food brings people together. But as I have learned, working to save food creates unbelievably powerful bonds between people.

It’s amazing what an idea can become. But until you have witnessed that evolution, from thought to existence, you truly cannot trust that it will happen. So for the first three months, we worked almost nervously. We were preparing for the school committee meeting, where we had to present for approval of our project. We had been warned again and again to be prepared for rejection, that the School Committee was likely to turn us down, and we were still unsure what would happen. But quickly we replaced that fear with an immense excitement. We read book after book on gardening, and studied every project we could find that was somewhat related to what we were doing.

Meanwhile, something important happened. We found a potential location: an old soccer field across from the high school. Suddenly, our intangible idea gained some tangibility, and we began working at full speed. We took soil samples, and measured water tables and hours of sunlight. We plotted out potential locations for the first year’s garden. And by the time the School Committee meeting January came along, it felt like we had worked too hard, and too long to be told by a bunch of people sitting around a table that we couldn’t grow this garden, that we couldn’t make a difference. So we decided to simply blow them away. We realized we would have to be ready for every question they asked or challenge they posed with ten answers and a whole packet research to back us up. And on January 15th 2008, we were approved.

Afterwards, we realized that it was an important formality that needed to happen, but that we had actually been approved 3 months before when we decided we were going to do this.

We started working with Bridghe, our garden designer and professional gardener, to design yearly plans of the garden. We met with more and more farmers. We sold native plants as our first fundraiser, and sent hundreds of fundraising letters to businesses around the area. We planned our first benefit, a pig roast at a local farm to table restaurant, with all local food donated by local farmers, and live music from a student band. At the pig roast, we raised over nine thousand dollars and had over three hundred community members gathered together enjoying some local food and talking about gardening and farming.

And as time went on, there were more and more successes like that. We built a unique water catchment system that collected rainwater to water our crops. We have raised over thirty thousand dollars to date, and have implemented the first steps of our education program, by having a kindergarten class come every Monday to the garden to learn.

In August, at the Slow Food Nation eat-in in San Francisco, I pledged on a tablecloth that within a year we would get something into the school lunches. One month later, we served lettuce with cherry tomatoes, carrots, and green beans in the high school and elementary school cafeterias.

And slowly, we have proven ourselves. We proved to the school committee that we were organized and dedicated, and that we had thought through the challenges we would face. We proved to our teachers that we weren’t just out to scatter some seeds across the earth. And most importantly, we proved to ourselves that youth can make a difference. We did it by doing big things and little things. We did it by donating over five hundred kilograms of produce to low income families around the region, and by putting a cherry tomato in the mailbox of every staff member and teacher at our school.

On Monday, exactly one year after walking into my school to talk to Mr. Powell about this idea of getting kids to think about food and the natural world more, I once again walked through those doors. This time, I had just come up from the garden, where I had been looking at the lines that had been drawn out for the expansion of the garden, and the area that had been marked for a fruit orchard. I was going into school to talk to Mr. Powell, but this time, I needed to make sure that that the head of the cafeteria had received our thirty kilograms of potatoes for the Project Sprout Mashed Potatoes. I also had to confirm the meeting with students from the nearby school who want a garden as well. I wondered in two Octobers from now when I’m a senior, when I walk through the doors of the school, what I would be going to talk to him about. And I wondered who would be checking up on the garden before school in 20 years, when even Mr. Powell is gone. And I knew, that no matter who it was, someone would be there, and the garden would even more beautiful than it is today.

This last year, has been the best year of my life. I have had the most amazing moments working on Project Sprout. Moments like seeing a class of kindergarteners run into the garden, actually excited about pulling up weeds. One girl informed Sarah that “he hated sweet peas, but that the ones at Project Sprout were delicious.” Moments like, when students in detention started coming down to the garden, and they started asking for more jobs because they were having so much fun. One kid, who most of the time I’m afraid is going to beat me, told me that Project Sprout kicked ass. Or moments like, one night after a follow up school committee meeting in September, when the whole team hung out in the parking lot of the school eating our fresh picked watermelon on the back of Mr. Powell’s truck.

But working on Project Sprout, I have also had some of the worst weeks and days of my life. Like when it seemed our entire fundraising event would fall through after two months of planning. Or when we didn’t get the first grant we applied to, that we spent four weeks working on. At one point in the spring, I missed a science competition to go to an important Project Sprout meeting, and the people I let down didn’t talk to me for months. There have been nights where I didn’t sleep at all, and I thought I would never recover. But I would take a thousand more of those nights, for just one of the amazing things that have happened over the last twelve months.

But it is not just what has happened in the past twelve months, although those things were incredible. It is about how it happened, and it is about what is going to happen. Because, the truth is, Sarah and Natalie and I are not special. We don’t have some awesome gift or power. We just have two things. We have youth, which is found in every town in every part of the world, and we have motivation, which is out there. A lot of it is out there. Mount Everett, the school in the town south of us, has asked for help starting their own Project Sprout. So has the school in the town North of us. As well as Lincoln Academy in Maine, over five hundred kilometers away. Youth Radio in California, almost five thousand kilometers away wants a version of Project Sprout, and even a school in Kedougou, Senegal all the way across the Atlantic wants to become our sister project, in the development of a Project Sprout Kedegou. That’s the most exciting part that—that it is spreading. There are kids all over the world who want to make this happen, all they need is a little hope and inspiration.

What all of you (at Terra Madre) have started is an unbelievable beginning to a powerful revolution. But I know that all of you are wondering if my generation will be able to continue that revolution, and carry it to the extent of its mission.

I’m here today because I want you to know, that we got it. I want you to know, that from know on, people can stop saying “Kids these days,” and start saying, “kids these days!”.

That’s why I’m here today. Not because the story of Project Sprout is a success story. This project is still very young and we still have a long way to go. Who knows what challenges and obstacles lie ahead. It is not a success story. It is something else entirely. It is a window through which all of us can get a glimpse at the power of youth. It is a promise to our parents, to all of you, that we will continue what you started. The story of Project Sprout is a message from our generation to all those that came before us that says, “We will be the generation that reunites mankind with the earth.”

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