By Richard Yue
Did you know that the vast majority of seeds and produce that we purchase have been genetically modified? Although genetically engineered foods are generally regarded as safe, there are potential risks and side effects (e.g., allergic reaction). Under the leadership of the math teacher, Mr. Vasilios Biniaris, a few members of the eighth grade graduating class of 2012 at P.S. 122 in Astoria, Queens believe many healthy food options are available and that alternatives to genetically modified food exists. These students, who are passionate in making a difference to their school, community and the world, came up with the idea of utilizing organic gardening processes to educate people about organic farming and the implications of genetically modified foods. The students hope to share some of their own harvest, grown at home, as well as the seeds which they collect and store.
Before the first seed could be planted in the organic garden named the Pure Harvest Garden, the students conducted research about genetically modified food, came up with the design for the garden, and presented the project to their principal to get the support needed for the construction of the garden on the school property.
Since the gardening club was created in 2011 – 2012, students have planted several hundred different vegetable plants and herbs; the teacher and students have mulched over 60 trees on the school property, the surrounding neighborhood area and in Astoria Park; and planted over 300 flower bearing plants in the tree beds on the streets in their neighborhood. Currently, the students are planting their second harvest, designing a trellis to hide a trash bin, and donating many of their vegetable bearing plants as part of the advocacy work which they are committed to.
The level of enthusiasm in the school and the broader community is growing. The numbers of partners they collaborate with have increased and the nature of their work continues to improve. So far, they have worked with GrowNYC, TreesNY, The Brooklyn Grange, and Solar One. Each of these organizations brings an unique perspective to the project and they affect the club’s perspectives as well. One of their partners, the Brooklyn Grange, a one-acre organic urban roof top farm in Queens, has been very supportive to the school. The students had the opportunity to visit the green roof farm setting last year to learn about organic farming, food and the environment. This year, two classes have already visited the Brooklyn Grange and another trip is being planned. The staff of Brooklyn Grange also visits their classrooms (indoor and outdoor) once a week to help them plan their garden and educate the students about sustainable living/farming practices.
Mr. Biniaris anticipates that bigger and better projects await them. The number of students participating in the gardening club has increased. The gardening club has begun to change the culture of the school. Gardening/farming is becoming a “hot topic” within their classroom walls and many classes are contributing. The efforts started by the core group of gardeners in 2011 – 2012 have contributed significantly to this cultural shift. The construction of garden beds alone will ensure that future generations of kids will have access to an experiential learning opportunity that can be integrated with what they learn in the classroom.
For more information about the Pure Harvest Garden, check out their blog at www.122-pure-harvest.blogspot.com.
About the Author: Richard Yue is an Environmental Engineer in the Region’s Clean Air and Sustainability Division. Mr. Yue has been with the EPA for over 22 years and is a graduate of Polytechnic University of New York.