PCSE Seed Grants in Action: Reflections on The Middletown Food Project

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In June, Hailey Sowden ’15 gave us a preview of plans for The Middletown Food Project, an initiative of Wesleyan’s Long Lane Farm that was funded by a seed grant from the Patricelli Center for Social Entrepreneurship.  Now, as the summer comes to an end and the fall harvest season approaches, Hailey and her collaborators – Katherine Enright ’15, Coady Johnson ’15, Ben Guillmette ’15, Laura Cohen ’14, Maggie Masselli ’16, Josh Krugman ’14, Catherine Walsh ’16, Anna Redgrave ’16, and Rebecca Sokol ’15 – write with this status update and reflection.

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IMG_4824This summer, more than anything, I’ve witnessed the failure of simple addition.  In a perfectly sweet ear of corn or crisp slice of watermelon, in a juicy tomato or a handful of tart blueberries there is so much more than seed plus water plus sunlight.  When you taste it, you just know that the math’s not quite right.

In the fall and winter several other student farmers and I wrote grants for the Middletown Food Project and then we waited. In the spring we heard the good news and with the help of the Patricelli Center for Social Entrepreneurship, started planning.  In June we planted, watered and weeded, put up flyers and knocked on doors.

After many meetings and a delicious informational dinner, held at the house of one of the enrolled families, we had the first official Saturday session on June 23rd at the farm.  That morning, I, and the other student farmers, nervously reviewed and rehearsed our plans.  The families would arrive. We would make nametags and talk about safety. We would take a twenty-minute tour of the farm and then the kids would play a game while the grown-ups harvested.  We were ready.  With all the preparations in place, several of us walked over to the neighborhood to pick up the families and bring them back to the farm. If the string of meetings, the planning and the advertising was the planting of a seed, this anxious and expectant time was like the days or weeks before the seed germinates.

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The moment we walked with the families through the farm gates, something great happened.  We were all, kids and grownups, farmers and not-yet-farmers alike, wonderstruck.  A child eating a pink radish pulled straight from the ground is not just a child eating a radish.  It’s something so much greater than that.  It’s a young person learning first hand how a food system can work.  It’s greater than child and radish alone.

We all harvested green onions and pea greens (the tender, delicious, new growth of pea plants), and then the children all clamored over who got to water the tomatoes.  We outfitted all of the kids with various watering devices including all three of our watering cans, a plastic pitcher, and mix-matched cups, and two and half hours had gone by before we realized that we had yet to do our planned activity or play a single game.  The farm, and it’s magic, and the magic all of the kids and their parents brought with them, had been enough.

IMG_4810Still, each week we choose a different theme and plan games and activities accordingly, but just like that first day, every week the most memorable events are the surprises, little victories and joys.  The theme of one week was “Critters on the Farm,” but what I remember most was sitting on the ground digging for worms for an hour.  During the “Cycles and Continuity” lesson, we were all stunned to see the kids racing to finish washing onions first.   “How plants work” was more like “Hey! Salad, Especially just Harvested, Can be Delicious After all.”  We planned days devoted to “The Importance of Water” and “ Flowers and Pollination.”  What happened was more like “Marvel at the Sunflowers, Now Taller than Everyone” and “Eat Cucumbers in Giant Bites like you would an Apple”.

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A few weeks ago we had a grill party in the back yard of one of the enrolled families.  We brought crates of produce from the farm to cook: yellow crookneck squash, tomatoes, peppers, onions, and garlic, lettuce, beets, husk cherries, and of course blueberries for dessert.  The ingredients were great, (I mean, we grew them ourselves!), but the deliciousness of the meal, the rosemary and garlic grilled chicken and squash, a big green salad with husk cherries and grilled beets, homemade thyme focaccia bread, mint iced tea, chips and salsa, blueberries with ice cream for dessert, couldn’t be chalked up to top notch ingredients alone. This was one of those meals that was clearly greater than the sum of its parts.  The extra magic must have come from somewhere, maybe it was seeing the younger kids shaking herb vinaigrette in mason jars, or the older kids daring each other to try the salsa (it was VERY hot!).  Maybe it was the easy camaraderie and the touch football, the surprise at how tasty that first bite of squash was, or the perfection that is dusk in the summertime.  Either way, there was something extra, something magic there.

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The last day of the Middletown Food Project is September 14th, but I don’t think that this is the kind of project that ends.  Eventually we’ll turn in the last of our summer crop, but our gates will stay open. Bringing local families to the farm didn’t just give us families on the farm, and it didn’t just give families fresh produce. Just like the perfect tomato or the perfect meal, the Middletown Food Project has proven to be more than simple addition. One plus one is more than two, and this summer, families plus farm added up to community.

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