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Buffalo Sprouts receives grants to add new gardens at city schools

The young gardeners at a West Side school are not your everyday green thumb types.

De Zin and Hser Wah, both from Thailand, donated two bean plants and two pumpkin plants for the Hampshire Street garden.

Mohammed Altaie, born in Iraq, helped build seven raised beds for the flowers and vegetables. He got help from Dadmin Kabangu, who was born in Congo, and Ali Mohammed, from Kuwait. Ali’s twin sister, Ghadeer, and her friend, Matalay Nah, from Thailand, helped plant the lilies, begonias, zucchinis, marigolds, string beans, yellow and green peas, peppers, romaine lettuce, tomatoes and lemon cucumbers.

And there is Reya Chhetri, who had never seen a sunflower before in her native Nepal. Now it’s her favorite bloom. She even takes off her shoes when she gets into the flower bed to water the plants, as if the ground was sacred.

“They get so tall and big,” said Reya, a sixth-grader at School 18 on West Avenue, which has one of six gardens in the Grassroots Gardens of Buffalo network.

The nurseries were established to help educate kids about health and wellness and where their food comes from. And in many cases, the produce helps feed their families. Now the urban garden organization is planning to expand the program to include all public and charter schools in the city.

It has received a $12,000 grant from Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo and another $4,000 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to start an initiative called Buffalo Sprouts School Gardens. The goal is to add three to six new gardens at city schools by September 2015, affecting an additional 1,000 students, said Melissa M. Fratello, executive director of Grassroots Gardens.

Not all school gardens will grow vegetables like the one at School 18, which accommodates prekindergarten through eighth grade. Some gardens will specialize in fruits or flowers, or a combination of plantings. And, in a school district where about 81 percent of the students are eligible for free or reduced-priced lunches, the harvest benefits many economically disadvantaged families, organizers say.

Fratello tells the story of a student who was thrilled to be going home with a bag full of produce last year after the big harvest at the Lafayette High School garden. It was a Friday, and the family’s food stamps had run out, leaving them with little food and few options for that upcoming weekend. That bag of produce made the difference.

“He told a teacher, ‘We’ll be able to eat dinner tonight,’ ” Fratello said.

The $4,000 from the Department of Agriculture can pay for food-bearing gardens only, but the $12,000 from the Community Foundation can be used for vegetable, flower and ornamental gardens, Fratello said.

Habitat gardens, for instance, expose children to the science of attracting birds and butterflies. Pollinator gardens show children the important role bees and butterflies play in the food they grow.

The gardens are designed to influence lifelong behavior in students and families. Children will learn not only about growing food but also the advantages of eating fresh produce, Fratello said.

“What we’re hoping for – more than beautifying a space and transforming a city lot – are health and wellness benefits, civic benefits and neighborhood pride,” Fratello said.

The Buffalo Sprouts campaign will streamline the application process for the schools and provide insurance, materials and technical support. It is something Grassroots Gardens has been doing for all of the schools it works with, including School 18, Dr. Antonia Pantoja Community School of Academic Excellence, Lafayette High School, City Honors, Frank A. Sedita Academy, Bennett Park Montessori and Burgard High School.

The School Garden Committee of the Buffalo School District helped develop Buffalo Sprouts to make sure principals, teachers and school engineers are involved, said Sue Ventresca, the district’s director of health-related services. Together, they developed the grant applications, a how-to guide on school gardens, a garden tool kit and other services.

“I think it’s exciting and important for us because we are not only teaching kids about where food comes from. We have workshops, people come in and teach kids about how to work in gardens,” she said.

Over the past 22 years, Grassroots Gardens has been sprouting up in other places besides city schools. There are 75 other community gardens growing throughout Buffalo, mostly on city-owned lots. Some gardens also have been started on private lots, including one named Cottage District on York Street on the West Side. Many were created by block clubs, including the Victoria Avenue garden on the East Side. And the Old First Ward Community Garden in South Buffalo uses the produce for its community kitchen.

The idea for the School 18 garden started with fourth-grade teacher Maggie Henry. She and Sara Pastorius, a fifth-grade teacher, worked with students last fall in getting the garden started. They helped the kids clean up the lot, make the flower beds, plant the seeds and cultivate them.

The students also get help from Lawyers for Learning, a nonprofit program of the Erie County Bar Association dedicated to improving the academic performance, self-esteem and self-confidence of students at the school.

Since 1999, members of the group – which includes judges, lawyers, law students, court clerks, paralegals, court reporters and secretaries – have been tutoring and mentoring the kids. Every year, Lawyers for Learning provides about 50 to 75 mentors, who are matched one on one with the youngsters.

The adult volunteers meet with them for one hour a week to work on homework, math skills, reading – “whatever it may be,” said Buffalo City Judge Susan Eagan, who started the program.

Last fall, the legal group helped the students clean up the lot, getting it ready for planting in April.

“We’ve been able to help financially and with supplies, and a lot of our volunteers have come and actually worked in the garden,” Eagan said. “It’s been a really great experience for a lot of us.”

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