BETHLEHEM — “We’ve been working with [the Bethlehem Central] school district basically since last October or November,” said John Grazzaffi, owner and chef at Garden Bistro 24 in Slingerlands, “but we really started the planning for these events in February.”
Commending Middle School Assistant Principal Mark Warford for the work he has done with its garden club, Grazzaffi said a conversation between Warford and his father during a Chamber of Commerce meeting is what initially inspired this October’s series of weekly dinners sourced directly from the district’s organic gardens.
“My father asked him what they do with all the extra produce,” he said. “They do lots of things with it, they donate it and they let students and staff take some home, but we suggested that we might buy some of it. We started with just buying herbs from the herb garden because we thought it would be nice to have really fresh herbs. Then we came up with the idea of doing some kind of event where the students help grow it and help harvest the food, and I have students that are employed at the restaurant too, who will be helping to cook and serve it.”
Fifteen percent of the food sales during the weekly events will go to the district’s garden programs, said Grazzaffi, to help purchase seeds or equipment. “It’s a really great project and they’re doing an incredible job with the produce; it’s so organized and clean. We’re been picking up produce here and there over the summer, but the fall harvest is specifically for us, which is wonderful. Squash and lettuce and onions and different types of vegetables. Beets and carrots and all different things. On those Tuesdays, all the produce will be harvested directly from the schools.”
Every school in the district has an organic garden, which supplements the food that is prepared and served in their cafeterias. The students not only see the end result of their school’s garden in their own school lunches but also take an active role in planting, tending to and picking produce from it.
Warford was recently working in the organic teaching garden at the middle school with the school’s new Interim Principal Dave Doemel and his children, explaining to Doemel’s five-year-old son why worms are good for gardens. “Worms are an important part of the ecosystem of a garden,” he said. “When we add compost to a garden, we’re not actually feeding the plants, we’re feeding the soil. Already living in the soil are all kinds of organisms, including worms, who all do their part to enrich the soil—which helps the plants to grow.
“That’s why it’s a bad idea to use pesticides,” Warford explained. “Because pesticides kill ALL those living organisms.” Warford is such an avid gardener that he has invented a simple machine for planting carrot seeds at the ideal depth and spacing, after getting the idea for it at a Northeast Organic Farming Association conference.
In addition to providing fresh produce for patrons at Garden Bistro, the middle school expects that its second crop rotation of the year—carrots, green beans, chard, beets, kale, spinach, radishes and more—will be ready in time for the school’s annual “Salads for Kids Day,” a celebration of the fall harvest when members of the Healthy Kids Committee and parent volunteers prepare fresh salads for the students using vegetables from the school garden. Produce that is not consumed by students or being featured at Garden Bistro is sold at the local farmer’s market and, according to district officials, more than 1,000 pounds is donated to the Bethlehem Food Pantry every year.
The middle school garden is set to receive a donation of nearly $4,000 from the Albany County Soil and Water Conservation District to install a movable “hoop house,” a tunnel greenhouse, 14 feet wide and 20 feet long, which will allow them to extend the growing seasons in the spring and fall; and the garden club has raised money to build a pavilion on the grounds, between the gardens and the running track, to be used by students and the community. Tie-in health and sustainability projects abound at the middle school, including recycling stations built for the cafeteria and Earth Tub composting vessels for composting cafeteria waste.
Grazzaffi has already begun planning the first Bethlehem Central School District Garden Night menu. “I know we’re going to have butternut squash bisque with toasted seeds and 100 percent pure local maple syrup,” he said. “We’re doing a really nice salad with roasted carrots and roasted beets, kind of cinnamon charred and spiced with a local butter and bib lettuce. For the entrees, we’ll be using local duck breast and are waiting to see what we’ll do with that—there were some heirloom tomatoes that looked really good, but also some golden beets.” With the exception of a fish dish, he said, everything on the tables will have been locally sourced.
“Right now, we have a roasted garlic vinaigrette and all of that garlic was grown at the high school,” he said. “And the feedback has been tremendous.” Every time they sell a bottle, he added, $3 goes back to sustainability programming at the school.
“It’s just been so much fun,” said Grizzaffi. “It’s great working with the students. It’s great being part of the community and seeing how excited the kids are about all these things they’re learning.” He laughed. “I think they’re almost as excited as we are!”