Education: Tapestry digs in
In one of her earliest actions as first lady, Michelle Obama went outside and got her hands dirty, digging up part of the beautifully manicured White House South Lawn to plant a vegetable garden. This and other countless efforts to encourage Americans to eat and live healthier lives have helped fuel an urban farming revolution in which chemical-free, delicious, organic food is grown in our own backyards and neighborhoods. Elementary and secondary schools across the country are aligning with this movement to create school lunches where ketchup no longer counts as a vegetable and “mystery meat” does not appear. Through the “Experience Play + Learning” project, Buffalo’s Tapestry Charter School is way ahead of the game.
On September 17 last year, a five-day build commenced to erect a new outdoor classroom, playground, and community garden—a one-parent initiative that quickly blossomed—where students can not only be physically active, but also active members of the urban farming revolution. A year later, the project isn’t yet complete, but it has been stimulated by a $50,000 grant from the nationwide Pepsi Refresh Challenge, awarded last year. “[Without the money], we wouldn’t have been able to buy all the component pieces necessary, maybe even having to forgo some of the elements we put on,” says Tapestry Charter School cofounder and executive director Joy Pepper.
The outdoor learning center has several features. The vegetable and herb garden, set up entirely by high school students and a science teacher, gives children hands-on experience in, as Pepper puts it, “how the food makes its way to the table.” The playground for kindergarten through fifth-grade students emphasizes health, wellness, and fun with slides and other traditional equipment, while the area for fifth graders and up, composed of nets and climbing structures, promotes team-building. The “green-learning structure” incorporates logs, wild grasses, a gravel pit, an outdoor water area, and raised counters where younger students can work on science or art projects. “It’s set up like an outdoor classroom,” Pepper says. There is also a soccer field and a greenhouse. Behind it all, a terraced piece of ground similar to a raised amphitheater functions as a stage for theater and dance. “Because we are a school that really values the arts, we wanted something like an outdoor performance space,” Pepper says. The green roof of the greenhouse and an outdoor weather station are set to be completed this coming school year.
The school is now adding finishing touches to the project. Set for the 2012–13 school year, a collaboration of parents, staff, and students will keep greening the space. Trees will be planted, murals will be painted on the walls of the green-learning structure, and students will start to observe the hatching of chicken eggs from an urban farm in Buffalo. Cooking staff will also be coming into classrooms this year to introduce kids to new vegetables so they’ll be more likely to try them in the cafeteria line. “There’s going to be a lot more food orienting this year,” Pepper says. “It’s so important to make kids aware of the choices they have.”
Upon opening its doors in 2001, Tapestry immediately rejected the idea of serving unhealthy, packaged lunches to students, and built its own kitchen. Now approaching its twelfth anniversary year, the school is still committed to serving fresh food, and its recent relocation to larger quarters at 65 Great Arrow Avenue has allowed the school to strengthen that mission.
Federal regulations are catching up to the school’s long-established standards. Regulations laid out earlier this year—which will take effect in the 2012–13 academic year—emphasize fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and smaller portions. Also, a maximum calorie count per meal will be established, whereas previous guidelines only specified a minimum.
“The new regulations very much fit our philosophy,” Pepper says. If more and more schools across the country adopt Tapestry’s philosophy, the first lady’s vision for a healthier America might very well become a reality.
For more information on Tapestry Charter School and the Experience Play + Learning Project, visit tapestryschool.org.
Gillian Nigro is a student in Ithaca College’s communications program and a Spree editorial intern.