Thanksgiving poems written by second-graders are tacked up outside the principal’s office the day I visit the St. Augustine School in the South Bronx:
Nice and fat.
I’m going to eat you
Just like that!
In fact, the 200 students at this parochial school know more than many city kids do about where the food on their plates comes from. Behind the four-story brick 1905 school building is St. Augustine’s own chicken coop, where 15 hens with black feathers and speckled breasts lay large brown eggs. In the community garden across the street, students this year grew beets, cucumbers, tomatoes and broccoli. If all goes as planned, by June tilapia will be swimming under a blanket of hydroponic herbs in a tank in a new greenhouse. And, yes, even live turkeys are a possibility for the future.
It’s all part of the sustainability program at this PreK–8 school in the Morrisania section of the Bronx. Across the country, educational institutions are integrating environmental awareness into their curriculums and daily practices, according to the Cloud Institute for Sustainability Education, a nonprofit consultancy based in New York. What makes St. Augustine’s experiment in urban agriculture stand out is where it’s taking place — in an impoverished, highly urban area — and how closely it is entwined with the surrounding community.
The South Bronx, of course, was the poster child of urban blight in the late 20th century. Even today Morrisania, which is in the southwest part of the Bronx, lies in the poorest congressional district in the United States. The population is largely black and Hispanic. Every Monday, a line snakes from the food pantry at the St. Augustine Roman Catholic church, a magnificent Romanesque-style limestone edifice on a rise on East 167th Street, which was built in 1895 when the area was largely inhabited by Irish and German immigrants (after structural problems forced the diocese to close the building to the public this year, services were moved to the St. Augustine School auditorium). All of the school’s students receive free federal lunch; 87 percent live at or below the poverty level. “If we can do it,” says Michael Brady, the school’s director of development, referring to St. Augustine’s sustainability efforts, “anyone can.”
Over the last couple of years, the school has been making its day-to-day operations greener: It switched to compostable cafeteria trays made of sugar cane. Back-to-back copying is standard on a machine that uses a toner so green that “we were told we could drink it if we had to,” Brady jokes. Floor cleaner and liquid hand soap come from Snappy Solutions, a janitorial supply company that specializes in earth-friendly products.
But getting students to buy into the idea of being responsible stewards of the environment is crucial to “making sustainability sustainable,” says Brady, who is also the managing partner in a governmental relations and development firm based in Albany. And that is how last year the hens arrived on the scene.
The chicken project was sponsored by Heifer International, which funds agricultural ventures in poor areas around the world, and Just Food, a New York City nonprofit whose City Farms program works with community gardeners to increase food grown in the Big Apple, particularly in low-income areas where healthy food is scarce. Owen Taylor, the City Farms Training and Livestock Coordinator, came to the school and helped current and former students, staff and community members build a coop and pen out of timber and chicken wire in the Peace Garden behind the school. Awesome Farm, a small pasture-raised livestock operation in Tivoli, New York, an hour and a half north of the city, delivered the 15 black sex-linked hens (no roosters, which are classified as wild animals in the "large and predatory bird" category and are prohibited by New York City law).
Thirteen-year-old Mamy (pronounced “Mommy”), dressed in her school uniform of a navy sweater vest and plaid kilt, introduces me to her charges. The 7th-grader, whose family emigrated from Senegal three years ago, heads the school’s Chicken Club, responsible for giving the hens water and food and gathering eggs (1 to 15 daily, most of them distributed to students and to the church food pantry). By now Mamy knows their preferences (“they don’t like bananas or bread”) and their personalities — one of them “doesn’t like to share,” another “is always getting picked on.” The hens gorged themselves on the half-eaten cheeseburgers, chicken nuggets and other cafeteria leftovers that previously had been bagged up with the garbage until they put on too much weight, which hampered egg production; now their meals have been pared back to lettuce, apples and organic layer pellets purchased from New York’s only feed store, conveniently located six blocks from the school. “They’re on a diet,” Mamy says with a grimace.
In keeping with the “Passing on the Gift” objectives of the Heifer funding, the students share their husbandry knowledge with others. They regularly welcome visits from community gardeners who want to get into chickens. A workshop was recently held in the school cafeteria where participants learned how to build a “chicken tractor,” a collapsible coop that can be moved around a garden so that the chickens can aerate the soil (i.e., scratch it), eat weeds and insects and fertilize plots.
Students in the school’s Gardening Club had two raised beds of their own in the Genesis Park Community Garden, which was created in 1984 on the site of a burned-down house. The flagstones for the garden steps and walkway were dragged here from nearby abandoned houses that had been destroyed, according to Roger Repohl, who lives in the church rectory, next to the garden, and is the resident beekeeper. He maintains three colonies at the rear of the garden that this past season produced 100 pounds of honey. Some of the produce from the students’ efforts went home with the children, and some went to the food pantry and to religious orders whose budgets have shrunk. Lettuce was given to the chickens (whose manure fertilized the beds).
The modest output of the garden, of course, is just part of the yield. According to Leah Mayor, the director of research and education at the Cloud Institute, the “connectedness” that students feel from working in the garden and with the chickens is key to building a sense of responsibility for the world. “For most of us,” she says, “a sense of place — a love of place — starts with home and school and then branches out. St. Augustine is creating a place kids can love. It’s all about digging where you stand — in this case, literally.”