Where Eating Green Is Part of the Curriculum

Campers at the Unquowa School's Farm Camp 2008
Campers at The Unquowa School's Farm Camp 2008

Earlier this month I had the pleasure of spending an hour with Sharon Lauer, Head of School at The Unquowa School in Fairfield, learning how she executed her vision to make the school a model of sustainable education. “Baby steps” is how Sharon described the process. Over time and after careful planning, teaching and development, the friolator was tossed, corn syrup was sworn off, frozen processed foods were banished, cage free meat and eggs were introduced, bulk organic milk and snacks replaced single serve, and organic food was sourced locally from Sport Hill Farm and a winter CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), supplemented by the school’s own raised beds.

Today, Chef Peter and Asst. Chef Dan prepare and present local, organically grown food in the school’s dining hall as students jockey for the chance to serve and clean up meals. After four years, they’re still raising the bar as true practitioners of kaizen, a philosophy of continuous improvement. Homemade pasta, pizza and bread are the latest menu additions, thanks to the donated Hobart mixer. Chef Peter stresses that delivering a short informative talk about new foods before service is a must “or they’ll go uneaten because no interest has been generated.”

Mary Curran, formally a kindergarten teacher at Unquowa, became an environmental science instructor this year, teaching gardening/composting/bird crafting to both educate the children and prepare them to model their lessons daily as they tend the six raised beds and confidently compost scraps after service. Sharon point out that “it’s important for children to experience joy in school. Our fifth graders were so excited by digging up potatoes, you’d think they were digging up gold. Our gardening program breathes life into why we’re doing all these other things. Children have to learn where food comes from and the relationship between living things. We make it transparent to them.”

The Unquowa School has truly become the epitome of sustainable education. Sharon very consciously made changes to how they run their dining hall to ensure that the model would be replicable. According to Sharon “it costs us no more to run the cafeteria with locally grown food because we have cut down on waste by buying milk and snacks in bulk instead of single serve. We spend money on lunch. Children are not our customers. However, we are spending our money more thoughtfully. By moving away from frozen processed foods we are down to one bag of garbage after lunch instead of six.”

When Sharon arrived at The Unquowa School, she was on a mission. UNESCO had recently declared a Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (DESD), and The National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) followed with a recommendation for member schools to join the movement. After attending a two week workshop at NAIS’ Sustainability Institute, Sharon and her staff felt empowered to develop and implement a sustainability plan. Sharon hired John Turenne, President and Founder of Sustainable Food Systems LLC, to consult them on modifications to their food service program and credits him as a big contributor to their success.

A young camper harvesting a root vegetable at Unquowa's Summer Farm Camp
A young camper harvesting root vegetables at The Unquowa School's Summer Farm Camp

Want to give your child a taste of sustainable education? Recognizing a void in the local summer camp offerings, Sharon looked to Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture and the Yale Sustainable Food Project for guidance on how to structure and run a summer farm camp. The Unquowa School’s Summer Farm Camp is open to children in grades Pre-K through 6th and “offers the fun of traditional camp while teaching the principles of sustainable food systems and land stewardship” according to Sharon. You can download a brochure from their web site. All but the smallest campers take daily trips up to Sport Hill Farm for a true hands-on organic farming experience and receive daily cooking lessons from Chef Peter. On Fridays, Chef Peter works with the campers to prepare a healthy, well-balanced meal from the foods they’ve harvested throughout the week. Maybe I can convince them to do a camp for adults too!

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