Year Two: Project Sprout Continues to Flourish
“Part of the job is eating on the job,” says Sam Levin, snapping off and handing me a leaf of his favorite—an unfamiliar red “braising green” which, in its delicious raw form, has a spicey, wasabi-like taste. Exam week is coming up at Great Barrington’s Monument Mountain High School, which is why, according to Levin, only he and his fellow-sophomore Dakota Malik (to the right of Levin in the photo) showed up after the last class on a recent Friday afternoon to work in the Project Sprout vegetable garden. Normally, he says, there would have been a dozen or more student volunteers from all grade levels, as well as assorted parents and faculty.
Though Project Sprout’s 12,000 square-foot organic vegetable garden is on school property, it is not just another extra-curricular laid on by the powers that be—comparable, say, to the French Club or the basketball team. Now in its second year, the initiative was founded by students and is funded solely through their efforts. So far, they have raised $60,000, including $11,000 from a benefit Pig Roast held this past Memorial Day Weekend at Route 7 Grill, and a $7,000 “Jennie’s Heroes” grant from the TV talk-show hostess Jennie Jones. This last will enable them to buy movable hoop houses, thus extending their growing season so they can provide the school cafeteria with fresh vegetables year ‘round. Though the recipient of the Jenny’s Heroes grant is Levin’s guidance counselor and the school’s chief adult champion of Project Sprout, Mike Powell, the grant proposal was written by Levin himself, a skill at which he has become adept.
In fact, it was Powell to whom Levin went with two friends at the beginning of his freshman year with an unformed idea about starting a student-run garden that would provide vegetables for the cafeteria and, he hoped, lead his fellow-students to share in his passion for the natural world. The others had their own agendas—Sarah Steadman, then a junior, is a gardening enthusiast, and Natalie Akers, a sophomore at the time, had been clamoring for fresh vegetables to be served in the school cafeteria.
“Together we began refining the idea and figuring out the details,” Levin says. “We met with local farmers and gardeners, landscapers and designers, teachers and groundskeepers. We got a big boost from Project Native, native-plant specialists in Housatonic. We met in between classes and during lunch, after school and before school. Within weeks, we had a plan.”
The first year, they started small with a 50 x 70-foot plot on an abandoned soccer field next to the elementary school. By last fall, they were able to provide potatoes and salad greens to the school cafeteria and still had enough left over to give away a thousand pounds of produce to low-income Berkshire County families. Prior to Project Sprout, the school cafeteria, where 350 - 400 students buy lunch each day, sold a pathetic six salads on a good day. When Project Sprout salad is offered, that sorry number shoots up to 70.
On the assumption that the garden will continue to win hearts, minds, and appetites, Project Sprout expanded its vegetable plot fourfold this year—with a lot of help from a neighboring farmer, Sean Stanton, and his plow. This Spring Mike Powell’s father built a couple of handsome garden sheds for storing equipment. The kids now have planted an orchard next to their vegetable plot. And neighboring school districts have begun requesting advice on how it is done. Asked how much money his school district is saving on groceries because of Project Sprout, Levin just shrugs. “I don’t remember,” he says, as if that were the least of it. “But one of the math classes figured that out.”