Class cultivates food for thought

BRISTOL — Last week, through a muggy, overcast haze, science teacher Gabe Hamilton and his sophomore Biology of Foods class diligently tended the Mount Abraham Union High School garden.
Ricky Bodington tilled the winter rye back into the beds with an old rototiller, which he and some friends revitalized in the school’s metal shop. Sam Reiss and Josh Cousineau, who are working with other students to establish a school garden club, planted tomato seedlings they sowed months earlier. Other students pulled ripe turnips from the ground and sifted rocks out of the gravelly soil with a screen made by a technology fabrication class.
All the while, volunteer garden manager Walter O’Donoghue bustled to and fro, teaching kids the odds and ends of gardening.
Students in the Biology of Foods class are trying to answer the question: Can Mount Abe feed itself?
So far the answer is no, said Hamilton, who holds out hope that in the future the school might be able to provide for itself.
But the class is about more than trying to feed the school, Hamilton added. It’s teaching students how to collaborate with each other and their community, and it’s helping them hone practical skills.
The Mount Abe garden is a shining example of cross-class and community cooperation with a focus on teaching students how to take knowledge learned in the classroom and apply it to real-life situations.
“The Biology of Foods class has been huge. The kids learn things in class, and then they come out here and use their work.” said O’Donoghue, who has overseen the garden since 2009. “The garden has really grown with student involvement.”
The garden has also garnered support from numerous local businesses. Tom Lathrop’s Exclusively Vermont Wood Products LLC provided siding for the wood shed, which Jeff Stetson’s woodworking class made for the garden. Lumber company rk Miles donated several hundred dollars worth of materials. The Middlebury Fence Company donated fencing for the garden and the Vermont Coffee Company regularly donates burlap coffee bags that the students use to outline the garden and ward off weeds.
But it’s the students who prep, cultivate and harvest the garden, and many of them are serious about one day feeding the entire school with this burgeoning food source.
Hamilton, who grew up in Eastern Oregon on an 800-acre cattle farm, realized last year that there was a growing gap in the school’s biology offerings.
“Kids were taking the required classes and then stopping,” he said. “Although we have some alternatives for kids in physical science and chemistry and AP classes, there was nothing rooted in the life sciences. I thought it was a hole that needed to be filled. I figured it would be a good way to get kids involved with farms, who live on farms and in agricultural communities, interested in learning more about science.”
Hamilton created a course curriculum, and the school board approved it. The reaction from students was overwhelming; roughly 50 signed up for the class in its first year. With more students than expected, science teacher Samantha Kayhart joined Hamilton, as they both own farms, to teach one of three class sections.
“We’re teaching sustainability and getting people to think about the resources they use and how that impacts the local community and the world at large,” said Hamilton. “It seems like an opportune time to incorporate these things into a curriculum.
“When you learn biology, you learn about these things, but they’re not typically purveyed in the context of common reality,” he added. “For me (growing up on a farm), it would have been nice to have had a class that complimented that lifestyle.”
While exploring the feasibility of feeding the school with the garden, students have learned loads about what goes into cultivating food.
“I’ve learned about what type of soil this is and how to prepare it for planting,” said Cousineau. “I’ve learned what plants work in what areas and what happens when there’s a lack of nutrients. And it takes a lot more time to plant in this (gravel-laden) soil than it does to plant at my home right down the road in New Haven.”
The students kicked off the year looking at why food matters. They studied macromolecules, calories and nutrients that are essential to human vitality. They then wrote recipes with accompanying essays for the school’s food service staff, persuading them to use certain ingredients and source them locally — something that the school’s food service already does to a large extent.
Next, the students learned about soil biology and how different soils influence various plant. They conducted an in-depth analysis of sap flow and explored nutrient management techniques.
The students then delved into the wild and wacky world of microorganisms and created microbe-based foods, like yogurt, kimchi, cheese, root beer and sourdough bread. The students then doled out samples in the school cafeteria.
The final unit of the class explored genetics and evolution, looking at such topics as chicken breeding.
Cousineau has found a passion for the science and application he’s learned this past year.
“I can use the knowledge I’ve gained to be a better gardener, and I can pass my knowledge on to other people,” he said.
The class is now capping off with a hands-on project that pushes kids to increase production in the garden. From boosting strawberry growth to increasing soil fertility, O’Donoghue is impressed with the projects and the contributions the Biology of Foods class has made to the garden.
“This is all about experimentation,” he said. “Sam (Reiss) is working on a companion planting project. Another student has a trench compost-making system. And all of the projects are great — nothing is wrong.
“This is all about learning, and the byproduct of learning is to provide food to the school cafeteria and Living Well (assisted care home) and St. Ambrose Church and HOPE.”
Looking out across the garden, Reiss smiled at the work she and her classmates have accomplished.
“I just love being outside and getting my hands in the dirt and watching the plants grow,” she said. “We’ve done all of this on our own. I remember planting that garlic last fall. It’s pretty amazing.”
The Mount Abe garden runs on donations. To donate in any way, contact Walter O’Donoghue at [email protected] or 802-382-8540.
Reporter Andrew Stein is at [email protected].

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