I met Sarah Haynes in January 2011 during my farming excursion in St. Croix. Sarah is now running a school garden, and teaching kids about food and farming as the EARTH (Education And Resiliency Through Horticulture)Coordinator at the Gifft Hill Schoolon St. John. I had the opportunity to visit her a few months ago and she showed me the garden, introduced me to the Iowa State interns and, to my great excitement, treated me to a ride in the farm truck. Read on to hear about how the next generation of Virgin Islanders are learning how to grow their own food and coordinating a student-led effort to ban plastic bags on the island.
Let’s start with some background on the Gifft Hill School and St. John. Can you give us the overall picture of the schooling system on St. John and why the school is so important?
We are a small island of approximately 6,000 people that does not have its own public high school. So if a student wanted to finish high school they'd have to go over to St. Thomas. Back in 2000, there was a high school that was started, a private high school, called the Coral Bay School. They later merged with a private elementary school that had been in existence since the 70s. So approximately 10 years ago Gift Hill School was founded as the only private K-12 on St. John.
So now we have from early learning, from age two all the way through graduation. And so the students can remain together and not have to do the transportation that happens when you have to go across (the islands).
We try to allow as many students as we can. We do fundraising for close to 80 percent of the student this year are on some sort of fundraising and a majority of those are on full scholarship. And so there is some merit-based scholarship, as well, but a lot of it is financial-based scholarship to allow the students to continue to go there. And the EARTH Program, in particular, came about with one funder saying: we really need to start doing gardening, and making a connection for us with Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa. And that allowed it to blossom, because having interns come down every semester… right now we're doing two semesters, and we're hoping to work up to three per semester. A garden takes a lot of work. If you've gardened before, and I know you have, it takes a lot of work, and teachers are really busy people, so I think a lot of the time what happens with school gardens is that there’s that enthusiasm and passion that happens with a community garden, but unless there is really someone that can be in a dedicated position to maintain that, then it’s hard to do.
We've only been around two years at this point, and the interns have really helped it to grow quicker than I think people would have thought.
So most people when they think of the tropics think of great access or fresh fruit and vegetables. Can you talk about the percentage of food that’s imported, the food culture and the difficulty as well as the importance of growing food on St. John?
Yes, so specifically on St. John, there’s four Virgin Islands and St. Croix is more of the agricultural space of our Virgin Islands, but specifically St. John has very steep hillsides, had some agriculture which was mostly sugar cane in the past decades. But as far as growing produce, most everything that you'll see in a grocery store comes from Miami and then has been barged down. So most everything is brought in from outside and we are working to try to change that perception that that has to happen. We are blessed with a growing season that can be much longer than what you see stateside, but we also have some limitations in our soil quality and our steepness and our rockiness of our hillsides. And so we looked back to: how did they do this centuries ago? And terraced gardens are one of the answer and so that’s what we built last year, was a four-stepped terrace in a steep kind of unused area of the school which is now flourishing, even since your visit. It’s really grown out with some huge squash and tomatoes and things that we really weren’t sure how they would do, like sweet potatoes and and other local things.
What would you say is the goal of the EARTH Program? What makes it unique? Is it trying to accomplish food security for the Virgin Islands? A better awareness for children to know how to grow food?
So there’s two sets of students that we're trying to reach. One is our Gift Hill School students and the other is the interns from Iowa State University that come down, but from the Gift Hill School side. That sense of ownership and accomplishment that they can get from gardening is one of the main goals and that curiosity and understanding of where their food comes from is another main goal. So I would think that those were the two big goals. There are so many other unintended consequences that happen. The third is integration with their curriculum and their science, so those would be the three-legged stool. The sense of ownership and accomplishment, and then a curiosity and understanding of where their food comes from and then third is that integration with their curriculum. We are a middle-school based program, we do outreach to the lower schools, but our main integration is with the middle school sixth, seventh and eighth grade science curriculum.
The other things that happen that are the tendrils; I guess you could say are just that connection to overall sustainability of, not only the school, but the community. And that sense of place, like where am I in this overall world and how do I connect to it? And understanding and exposure to how tropical fruits and vegetables and all of that can be grown is definitely something that the students are learning. And I find that a lot of the times students that excel the most in our earth labs are not necessarily the ones that are making the best grades in science and English and math. They are the students that are looking for something to be good at, and really connect to that “wow, I can do something and accomplish something, I grew this, and we built this.” That’s one of the really special parts, for me, as a teacher -that I get to see those students kind of re-engage, the ones who've have turned off for whatever reason, re-engage in the classroom.
What is the best reaction or the best phrase you've heard from a student?
There are so many!
A sixth-grader came to me, and she was coming across on the ferry and she said to me: "It’s really sad that they've got these planters in town and there are no plants in them, Miss Sarah. We need to do something about this." And behind the scenes is we've been kind of working and hoping that we could actually plant something downtown. But to have someone that’s 11 years old to know they can make a difference. Her thinking was if we can do this at school, why can’t we do this in our greater community? And so it was with her urging that her entire class became a part of a project to design this space. They picked out the plants and decided how they were going to go in the ground and we spent a day installing these plants during "Gifft Hill Gives Back" which is an annual day that happens all across the islands, the student-led projects. But we were really proud that it kind of bubbled up from that class.
Yes, you showed me those plants in the downtown area. Is that space still flourishing?
Yes, it’s still flourishing. We're hoping the city comes along and starts maintaining it better and that perhaps other community groups are inspired to plant in other areas. but we've still taken control, everything has survived and the students are really proud of what they did there.
Another little community-involved project happened during Earth Month. We have an Eco Club who decided to play the movie Bag It. The student body got really excited about it, and we wrote a little play, a little skit about what plastic bags do to the ocean, and they acted it for the student body and our Senator Greg Barshinger showed up and said: “You need to take this over to the Senate because we're considering a bag bill to eliminate plastic bags from the island, overall.” And we were shocked to know that that was even being considered so we went and spent a day at the legislature with seven of the Eco Club students and they got to present on live television in front of the nine senators, for the first time ever. I was really proud of their efforts and because it was a student-led initiative. So we really hope that we actually get a bill passed. We started an online petitionthat we're forwarding to all the other schools, there are some senators that are opposed to it, and there are some that are for it, but we're trying to make it student led. The students will be the ones that will be putting this petition out on their Facebook page and putting it out to their friends and family - the next-generation Virgin Islanders. This sounds like a small step, plastic bags, but if you look at what’s in our oceans, and you go to visit the waste-management authority like we did with the Eco Club and you see the thousands of bags hanging out in the trees, and what’s right over the hill from the trees is the ocean, you can kind of get that connection as to how this can be an important thing. So I'm going from leading a gardening program to the elimination of plastic bags. The students get excited about something and then we can have the potential, since we are a small enough island, to really make those kinds of big changes. To able to support those student ideas is such powerful thing. Students don’t realize how much potential they have to change their world until someone tells them you do. And I love that part, that we can support that growth.
Do you connect with other school gardens and learn from them, or do you look at the EARTH Program as an independent and unique entity because St. John has unique issues?
I think we have a unique model. Bringing in college students for credit and giving them the opportunity to create— (and it depends on what their background is) but either install a landscape improvement project or design a curriculum, or there’s lots of potential for them to integrate what they've learned in their degree program thus far and then to come down and get to do it. I think we're unique in that way. But we are only in our second year and next year is the year that I'm really hoping to branch out and connect with other gardening programs and learn from them and share lesson plans and have them have the opportunity to learn from what we're doing. And I think it takes a few years of doing something just to get the model down. This summer we got accepted to the Edible Schoolyard training in Berkeley, California. We are so excited to be going there, I think there are 70 other educators from 40 other schools, around the US, and maybe the world. We're excited to go and get the chance to meet those people. I think there will be lots of growth and learning that can come out of that.
What is the future of the lunch program? When I was visiting there was a guest from Johnson & Wales who was interested in seeing your garden and learning about the integration of food into the school.
Yes, there is progress I'm excited to say! Being a small school, you have to fundraise for these initiatives to happen. We had no lunchroom this year, but this summer they are building a cafeteria. The Earth Program is planning to have some role in the production of produce for that and we're working together with the administration right now to make sure that at least some part of that is a free tasting.
So even if a student does not have the money for a lunch program or isn’t on a free-or reduced lunch, they can still eat something that is from our garden and that they helped produce. So the exact way that’s going to look, we are not sure yet, but from the beginning one of the tenants from this gardening program has been that all the produce goes to the students, and so that’s taken the role of tastings. For example, either sending produce home with kids, and their parents cook something and they bring it back for a potluck lunch, but we've done a lot of different things. We've prepared a harvest salad during EARTH lab or students through all classes made hot sauces and salsas and hosted did a “taste-off” during lunch, and students voted on the their favorite flavor.
But next year, having an actual cafeteria will allow us to take it to a new level to allow us to cook things during our labs or to give it to the cafeteria staff to make something that then everybody gets the opportunity to taste. So as you know, with gardening, sometimes you get a plethora all at once.
That’s awesome. Do you have any plans for next year or are you going to try to integrate what you learn at the Edible Schoolyard? Are you thinking about what next year brings yet?
Absolutely. There are some changes that we are looking forward to next year and the cooking component of it is going to be a big part of it. We are, for the first time, going to offer an elective, a high-school elective, that will be optional and if the EARTH program continues to grow, we think that there could be multiple electives that could be offered to the high school. We'll remain a middle-school integrated mandatory program but then we'll allow those students that were really connected to the garden continue with that. Maybe they'll continue to do more personal projects, to do culinary arts, or to do landscape design, or a more traditional botany and plant physiology class. So we're seeing the EARTH program as this foundation that then offers an extension if they want, for an elective credit within their high school education.
What is your background? How did you get into gardening and sustainable food advocacy?
Sure. Well the islands, in general, have been a place that I have lived now for going on a decade. So, number one, I have this passion for the community of the Virgin Islands. I moved back to the States for graduate school as a Masters in Sustainability in 2009 and not really sure what direction that would take me in, since it’s a very broad program, I became passionate about food security and local food and specifically lunchrooms and creating school gardens. I was lucky to be able to find a position back in the Virgin Islands, doing just that. My undergraduate degree is in Environmental Science. I have a basic science background and had done teaching and hands-on education through more camp-style programming, but this is a first, for me to be working in and creating a garden and lesson plans for kids. So I am learning in step with them, every day is a new experience for me and that’s one of the really great things too about this program, I feel like the teachers are also given a chance to learn something new like the surprises that come up in a garden. Teachers are learning in step with our students that we can grow our own food, we can create healthier soil through composting, we can teach our students standards through their real life experiences in the garden.