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New York schoolchildren use high tunnels to grow veggies

With help from Cornell horticulture faculty members, children in six New York state schools are or will be growing their own vegetables in high tunnels, which helps the students learn about issues related to food and sustainability.

High tunnels are unheated and arched plastic greenhouses that help gardeners extend the growing season. High tunnels will enable students to plant vegetables three weeks earlier -- and harvest them three weeks later -- than if they used an unprotected garden, said Chris Wien, professor of horticulture, the Cornell lead on the project.

"This allows children to experience the excitement of growing their own radishes, lettuce, etc., significantly before the end of the school year, and well through the fall term," Wien said.

The tunnel also provides the opportunity for educators to teach students about the benefits of real food. At Edmeston Central School in central New York, children spend classroom time learning how to make quick, easy meals out of the vegetables they grow. One second-grade class recently prepared salsa using peppers, tomatoes, onions and cilantro that they grew in the tunnel. These ingredients also turn up in the cafeteria, where food service director Brian Belknap creates dishes from greenhouse bounty, such as crisp salads featuring student-grown lettuce.

"I'm so excited about it, for two reasons," said school superintendent Brian Hunt. "One, we have our students eating real food in the cafeteria. Second, they're learning about where real food comes from, and that is something they'll carry with them for the rest of their lives. They're learning that you can participate in your own good nutrition."

The tunnel greenhouses also give the children opportunities for non-food lessons. At Clara Barton School in Rochester, for example, fifth-graders helped install the high tunnel -- and learned about levels, drills, screw guns and other tools along the way.

"The students have been very enthused with the high tunnel experience and especially look forward to being able to garden even in the rain," said Jan McDonald, director of the ecological organization Rochester Roots, which manages the high tunnel project in Rochester.

This year, the Clara Barton high tunnel will feature eggplants, tomatoes and peppers. Next year, the school may experiment with growing such southern crops such as peanuts, sweet potatoes and hot peppers, according to McDonald.

Each high tunnel is a collaborative effort between students, teachers, local farmers, volunteers and Cornell staff.

"We helped in siting of the high tunnel, provided information on how it could be managed, and are providing links with other schools that are getting or already have high tunnels," Wien said.

The results of the project will help Cornell researchers determine if having a high tunnel can benefit school gardening programs. They are also interested in how the schools will alter their educational programs to take advantage of the high tunnel.

"We will be checking with the teachers on how they use the structure to teach other subjects, such as the concept of global warming," Wien said.

All schools in New York state with gardening programs were invited to apply for the program. Those selected were chosen based on their level of interest, according to Wien. The next school to receive a tunnel will be PS 205 in Bayside, Queens. The other three schools have not yet been determined.

The project is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Elisabeth Rosen '12 is a writer intern for the Cornell Chronicle.

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Joe Schwartz