Rochester, NY – George H. Moses, executive director Northeast Area Development, Inc. (NEAD), welcomed Marc Natale, Executive Director American Heart Association (Rochester), Linda Lovejoy, Wegmans Community Relations Manager, and twelve Wegmans employees who are part of a Leadership Development Group to watch as Rochester City School District students from School 33 harvested the first vegetables from a Hoop House erected nearby.
The harvested vegetables were used to prepare a Thanksgiving dinner for 40 families on Saturday, November 19.
Though smaller in scale, this Hoop House is similar to those that are used at Wegmans Organic Farm to extend the growing season to 10 months of the year. It’s also part of a learning garden that Wegmans helped to establish at The Freedom School in 2011. Beginning in 2014, the American Heart Association came on board with a curricula to help children learn about gardening and health eating.
A Bountiful Partnership with The Freedom School
The Freedom School
In 2004, Moses helped establish the first Western NY Children’s Defense Fund Freedom School in Rochester, serving (K – 12) students in the Rochester City School District. Through after-school, weekend, and summer programs, The Freedom School focuses on helping kids with literacy, nutrition, civic engagement, conflict resolution, goal setting, and they connect families to health care and other resources.
Wegmans first partnered with The Freedom School in 2011 and continues to support the organization financially and through project-based volunteer work.
Growing and Learning
The Freedom School provides snacks and meals prepared in their kitchen, using ingredients harvested in the nearby Teaching Garden, which was funded and established by Wegmans in 2011. To get started, East Avenue store employees built a large raised bed, and each spring, they help stock the beds on ‘planting day.’
Students and Freedom School staff tend the garden throughout the growing season, and since 2014 with funding provided by Wegmans, they have learned even more about growing and nutrition through a national program developed by the American Heart Association (AHA).
Each year, the local chapter of the American Heart Association, NEAD and an Urban Fellow intern from the University of Rochester come together to map out the curricula and a maintenance schedule for the garden. The AHA utilizes a set of curricula, with garden at its core. The Teaching Garden is a real-life laboratory where students learn how to plant seeds, nurture growing plants, harvest produce and understand the value of good eating habits. The AHA and NEAD have also introduced blood pressure tracking and an education program for the parents. (see results - Making A Difference - below)
"This initiative is a great example of communities coming together to address neighborhood issues,” said Moses.
New in 2016 - Expanding the Partnership and the Growing Season
Wegmans convenes several Leadership Development groups, each made up of a dozen or so employees, across the company each year, and a big part of the program is a year-long continuous improvement project chosen by each group to make a difference.
Determined that their project would be one that helped kids and families, one such group decided to work with The Freedom School to acquire two vacant lots next to the garden. The original garden, they knew, yields a harvest only during warmer months, but a Hoop House would extend the growing season to almost year-round. Wegmans has been using this method of growing at its Organic Farm for the last several years with great success, and many of Wegmans’ grower partners have also adopted the method.
The City of Rochester owned the vacant lots and agreed to sell them to The Freedom School for $900. Wegmans Development Leadership Group raised $15,000 through an ‘office garage sale’ and a donation from the company to purchase the property and fund the Hoop House, and they helped navigate the City’s zoning and permitting process to move the project forward. They also called on Wegmans Organic Farm to teach the Freedom School about Hoop House farming and provide a curricula to AHA.
Others stepped up to help complete the project with in-kind donations: The Garden Factory donated all of the dirt and stone. Lowe’s donated the patio block, cinder block, 2x6s, concrete, and a hose. RIST Transport, Inc. provided transportation for the Hoop House. And, Nolan’s Rental donated the use of a post pounder.
The leadership group did the initial Hoop House planting, but like the garden, the Freedom School and the students took it from there, with help from AHA.
“You don’t always need to start from scratch,” said Lovejoy. “What’s so exceptional about the Wegmans Leadership Development Group project is that the team identified an initiative that was working and found a way to build more capacity. They connected the dots to complete a picture.”
Making a Difference
The collaboration with the American Heart Association has shown measurable results, with about 200 kids participating in the summer months. AHA also trained 16 parents to be community health educators for their peers, providing them with electronic blood pressure cuffs so that other parents can ‘know their numbers.’ Approximately 60 people took advantage of this and were given wallet cards to track their readings each week. Several were found to have high blood pressure and were able to connect to resources in the community and follow up with their doctor.
“There is a lot of talk about health outcomes, statistics, challenges our youth face, social determinants of health and how to improve education,” said Natale. “The Freedom School collaboration has been aimed at making a direct impact on all of that. Amazing things happen when organizations roll up their sleeves and bring together specialized skills, knowledge, talent, hard work and passion. And the work didn’t take place in a boardroom, it took place in the soil."
What is a Hoop House? It’s a series of large hoops or bows covered with a layer of heavy greenhouse plastic. The plastic is stretched tight and fastened to baseboards with strips of wood, metal or wire. A Hoop House is heated by the sun and cooled by the wind, and it makes it possible to grow ‘outdoors’ even when it’s very cold.
What was planted? The initial planting included beets, Chinese cabbage (yu choy and Shanghai), Asian salad greens (Tokyo Bekana), and spinach, which has not yet sprouted. Plantings for next season will include kale, mustard greens, collard greens, carrots, and spinach. Eventually, the Hoop House is expected to be in production 10 months of the year.