Opportunities await schools hesitant to compost

The New York State Food Donation and Food Scraps Recycling Law, adopted in 2019, requires businesses and institutions that generate an annual average of two tons of wasted food per week to donate excess edible food and recycling all remaining food scraps if they are within 25 miles of an organics recycler, such as a composting facility or anaerobic digester. But interestingly, while the law absolutely covers colleges, school systems serving kindergarteners through 12th graders are specifically exempt from the requirements.

Maybe the state Legislature, in its infinite wisdom, recognized that K-12 schools are already Continue reading

U.N. report reinforces VegProj concern big time 

We organized what we called an Invasive Species Workshop this summer at Myers Middle School with a general awareness that plants and animals from different parts of the world can really disturb stable ecosystems when they’re introduced to places where they don’t belong. And we organized the two-day activity with the conviction that teaching opportunities drawn from our surroundings and involving physical work can engage kids like no textbook, YouTube Video or PowerPoint ever can.

We focused on Purple loosestrife because it is the easiest invasive to spot around our garden, displaying its lovely pinkish-purple flowers each August, though it is hardly the only one. And we led incoming sixth graders in identifying the plant mapping locations (marking spots where it was found on an aerial photograph) on Aug. 23 and then removing it from the soil on Aug. 24.

We are under no illusion that we made a dent in the ability of this plant to spread in our neighborhood. We know, however, from simply talking with kids that many gained understanding of a few important environmental concepts – like what native and invasive species are.

What we didn’t know was that a report would be published a few days later – Sept. 4 to be precise – providing more scientific backing for our general awareness and concern than we could have imagined. A quick reading of news media accounts about the findings of Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, working with United Nations support, might even create the impression that this would be worth schools teaching about, at least if they have living examples of the situation right in their backyards.  The Washington Post put it this way: “Invasive pests are wreaking havoc across the planet, destroying crops, disseminating pathogens, depleting fish people rely on for food and driving native plants and animals toward extinction, according to a major report backed by the United Nations.”

The report said the pests are costing the world’s inhabitants $423 billion a year and that that figure is growing rapidly.

Maybe if the local media picked up the story, they might have said something like, “U.N. report backs Vegetable Project concern” in their headline.

A friend on the Myers faculty actually did suggest that the school’s curriculum masters might consider building on what we started. We would be so pleased to see that happen.

–Bill Stoneman

Environmental project yields teaching opportunity

Sixth graders at Myers Middle School pulled a chunk of Purple loosestrife from soil around the Vegetable Project’s garden at the school on Thursday. The effort — and it was hard work — may not actually do much to curb the spread of the invasive plant that’s easy to spot along roadsides this time of year.

We’re okay with that, however, having organized a two-day Invasive Species Workshop and embedding it within a weeklong Transition Camp for students who are entering middle school after graduating from elementary school back in June. The workshop’s purpose was really about teaching and learning – about invasive species and their threat to stable ecosystems – and building some awareness of an environmental challenge just outside the school building and maybe even, if we were really lucky, instilling some sense that the environment is worth caring about.

We organized the workshop around a couple of teaching and learning ideas that animate many of our efforts: surely starting with the value of doing and touching and tasting and experiencing, and doing all of that outdoors to the extent possible. Field trips are great, but don’t overlook the ones that don’t require permission slips and paying for buses. Exploring something in depth is sometimes way more meaningful than the breadth of material that we see taught in so many classes. Thus, our focus for two days on just two terms, invasive species and ecosystem.

Oh, and here’s another idea that certainly isn’t original: Not everything that counts can be measured. Just imagine trying to measure whether we built awareness in two days of an environmental challenge and instilled some sense that the environment is worth caring about.

The structure of our workshop was actually quite simple: On the first day, we gave kids a clipboard and an aerial photo of the area near our garden where we see more Purple loosestrife year after. We asked them to mark on the photo where they found the plant. And we talked with them about our two focus terms while they did that. And then the next day, we pulled plants from the ground and placed stakes with colorful ribbons where plants came out. Maybe the stakes will help us determine next August what we accomplished this week.

We created our workshop around Purple loosestrife and held it in August because the plant is quite visible around our garden at this time of year. But interestingly, it is hardly the only invasive species issue at Myers. Phragmites are aggressively pushing out native cattails. We see splotches of Queen Anne’s lace, garlic mustard and Oriental bittersweet. And four ash trees, which Emerald ash borers are destroying near and far, seem healthy – so far.

Would all of this offer a rich ambitious teaching opportunities, well beyond what we tried to tackle in 45 minutes with kids one day and then 30 minutes the follow day? Depth over breadth certainly argues for giving the 50 students we engaged a chance to learn more about what we started sharing with them. It would be especially great to return to the physical space we worked in to make follow-up observations. Assembling an ambitious project, however, in a school where educators already feel overwhelmed with demands placed on them is not easy.

–Bill Stoneman

Planting flower bulbs supports hands-on learning

If we can get your attention for a moment, we have an important reminder: The days will get shorter. And colder. Winter happens around here. Spring never comes as quickly as we’d like. Planting flower bulbs, however, helps us feel a bit better heading into the long chill. It gives us a great reason to stay outside in autumn’s cool days. And then, it will provide the first burst of color in your garden in the spring. Even better, it does more than that when you buy the bulbs in our Flower Power Fundraiser now through Friday, Oct. 13.

The Vegetable Project receives half of all proceeds raised by our sale of bulbs. And that means that you contribute to our programs that create hands-on learning opportunities for Albany kids when you buy bulbs through us. It means you support our work at teaching kids where their food comes from. It means that you support outdoor instruction. It means that you help us make a difference with kids who benefit from doing and touching and tasting and experiencing. And so much more.

Please click here to see the selection and place your order.

–Bill Stoneman

Opportunity to pitch in teaching about environment

Invasive purple loosestrife has been growing near our garden at Myers Middle School since at least 2017. It’s been outcompeting native wetland plants, like cattails, in the Northeast for at least a couple of decades and is believed to have reached North America from its home in Central Europe as long ago as the early 1800s. So, we have been thinking about how to leverage trying to remove the plant for educational gain for quite a few years.

The Vegetable Project builds teaching and learning around doing and touching and tasting and experiencing because we know that all of that makes a much greater impression than teachers standing in front of a classroom ever can. And seeking to manage an attractive but unfortunately harmful plant in our midst seemed to offer an excellent opportunity.

Purple loosestrife, however, is easiest to identify when it’s in bloom, in August, when few students are around the school. But we were offered time this summer during the school’s Transition Camp for incoming sixth graders to put something together. And we came up with what we’re calling an Invasive Species Workshop, to be held next week, on Wednesday and Thursday, Aug. 23 and 24, involving identifying, mapping and removing the plant. We hope, really expect, to pique interest in the environment and raise awareness of our role in caring for it.

Want to get involved? The more team members we have talking with kids about what invasives are – nonnative plants or animals that disrupt functioning ecosystems – and why we should be concerned about them the better (and we’ll make sure you’re well prepared to have those conversations). Please reach out at [email protected] or 518-728-6799.

–Bill Stoneman

Digging in the dirt for academic performance

So, the existential question we’re occasionally asked goes something like this: “Do you think digging in the dirt is really going to help those kids learn readin’, writin’ and ‘rithmetic?”

And serious academic research reinforces our own anecdotal sense of things in saying that exposure to nature contributes mightily to mental health and resilience and strengthens attention and reduces stress, all of which helps children learn.

That sounds important enough to us here at the Vegetable Project to keep doing everything we can to get kids outside and then building teaching and learning around doing and touching and tasting and experiencing.

Goodness knows, sitting at desks in traditional classrooms is not working for many, many students.

“It is time to take nature seriously,” write university researchers in Frontiers in Psychology, “as a resource for learning and development. It is time to bring nature and nature-based pedagogy into formal education – to expand existing, isolated efforts into increasingly mainstream practices.”

We wrapped up another year of after school Garden Club at Stephen and Harriett Myers Middle School on Tuesday of last week. Please join us for the summer edition, Wednesday evenings from 6 to 8 p.m., starting this week, on the 14th! Children, adults, friends, connected with Myers or not.

–Bill Stoneman

Handy links to online watering schedule signup

We want to show volunteers – perhaps you – around before they start to water our school gardens during the summer of 2023. But then we would be grateful if volunteers would use our online signup tool to let us know when we can plan around their commitment. Please click here to sign up to water at Albany High School. Please click here to sign up for Myers Middle School. And please click here to sign up for North Albany Middle School.

But again, please reach out first, at [email protected], so that we can arrange to show you the ropes. And please know that you will be making a big difference when you take a couple of watering shifts beyond your orientation in this volunteer group’s ability to head into the new school year with gardens teaming with teaching and learning opportunities.

–Bill Stoneman

Help with watering would be great contribution

Want to lend a hand in the Vegetable Project’s gardens on your own schedule? Won’t you please consider helping to water at Albany High School and/or Myers Middle School from now until early October. Claim a week. Or maybe a day of the week for the summer. Or days that work for you. Either way, you’ll make a big difference in this volunteer group’s ability to head into the new school year with gardens teaming with teaching and learning opportunities.

Please reach out at [email protected] to arrange a garden walkaround and to learn the ropes with one of our veterans. Or go ahead sign up for days at Albany High here and at Myers here. We will get in touch and plan to meet you to get you started. We won’t leave you alone until you are ready. But please understand, the contribution only begins to make a difference as you start working independently and reliably.

Many thanks for 13 years of great support for our efforts.

–Bill Stoneman

Evening in the Garden winning raffle ticket numbers

Thank you to everyone who joined the Vegetable Project folks for an Evening in the Garden at Albany High School yesterday, Tuesday, May 9. And many many thanks to everyone on the VegProj team for making it a lovely evening. We are grateful for all your support for our efforts, which come in many different forms.

Then, particularly important business for several individuals, we picked winning tickets for raffles at the event after the holders of those tickets likely left And we hope that we can reach you and arrange to give you what you won. If your numbers match those listed below, please email at [email protected].

Mother’s Day Treat Yourself basket – 060037

Wine & Smile basket – 060047

Grow on You – 060097

Summer Beer basket – 060191

Milk & Cookies basket – 060200

The Navona Gift Card – 060044

50/50 raffle, worth $51.50 to the winner – 744002

— Bill Stoneman

Improving greenhouse project next time around

Satisfying as it was to bring immeasurable excitement to 39 classes and one after-school program by building 750 miniature greenhouses with 750 Albany students from late February 2023 to late March, the initiative is a work in progress – as perhaps all ambitious undertakings should remain long after launching. So here are a few notes to ourselves to keep in mind as we think about trying again in less than a year:

We spotted germination of seeds sown inside our milk jug miniature greenhouses early, on March 19. We saw considerably more by April 1 and quite a bit more than that by April 10. And we opened a few up on April 11 and potted up some plants and moved others to garden soil. And we could open many more now, on April 17. This serves to remind that we ought to be prepared to start caring for live plants much earlier than we were thinking this year. Most of all, that means planning with our teacher partners to ensure that the insides of the jugs stay well hydrated during warm dry patches and even over weekends and school vacations. It also means some serious conversations with the same teacher partners about how much more meaningful educational tools the project will be when they and their students and perhaps their colleagues play a meaningful role in caring for live plants.

Vegetable Project volunteers have the enthusiasm to pack more action into each class period of making greenhouses than we suspect most school district education leaders even understand is happening in the classrooms and cafeterias and hallways. It is in everyone’s interest, however, that we redouble efforts to ensure that our teacher partners in fact are partners in pulling off what feels at times like a high wire act, as opposed to appreciative recipients of the fruits of our labor. This likely means asking teacher partners to think out loud with us many months before February about how they can work toward taking more responsibility for making this activity work, so that the volunteers can bring it to more of their counterparts around the school district and cook up more hands-on learning opportunity ideas.

Frantically turning plastic gallon milk jugs into miniature greenhouses within class periods, meaning sometimes in 40 minutes, would likely mean so much more to students if we introduce them to the amazing potential packed into seeds a week or more before the building activity. This likely means germinating seeds on paper towels inside plastic bags and in other settings so that students can see day by day what happens when moisture penetrates a seed coating. And it likely means exploring the physical structure of seeds as is only possible when every student has the opportunity to dissect large specimens with enough helping hands nearby to provide ample one-to-one assistance. We are committed to developing this new phase of the project well before February 2024. But we’ll certainly benefit from partnership with teachers through rounds of pilot testing of ideas.

We have our work cut out for ourselves. Building more teaching and learning around doing and touching and tasting and experiencing, however, is bound to make a meaningful difference in the lives of students who are not thriving today.

–Bill Stoneman