“We were planting some pollinator plants because after the AP test there’s not a lot to do, so we decided to do a sustainable project,” explained “Celia Johnson” as she weeded a row of lettuce in the high tunnel at Common Ground School farm in New Haven, Connecticut. “We planted lavender, echinacea, borage. We have hex beds near the bees and also by the library.”

With a total population around 125,000, New Haven is home to five colleges, including Yale University. The population is diverse ethnically, economically, and spatially. Nestled against West Rock State Park, Common Ground is located less than a mile from a cinder-block housing project where at least four shootings have occurred in the last four years.

Johnson, who graduated from the school in June, was one of about 200 students there. The goal is for every student to have at least a few points of contact with the farm during their high school career. Toward that end, some teachers use the farm in their curriculum. The math teacher takes kids out to measure, space, prepare and plant garlic in the fall. French and Spanish teachers use weed pulling as an opportunity to teach vocabulary.

“We came out here and did farm work once a week for a semester,” said Johnson. “We would have little French songs, and it was fun to do a hands on thing. It helped words stick, because I was doing it. We learned about blueberries and different plants and also about farm work and farm prep because we helped prep the beds for winter. That was pretty cool. We did bean harvest, too.”

After school clubs take care of the chickens, wash and collect all the eggs for the CSA, and assist with raising and processing meat birds. Students conduct independent study and senior projects that focus on the farm. A Green Job Corps program runs on Saturdays during the year and 20 hours per week during the summer, and offers students the opportunity to be paid for farm work. In Spring 2017, five students participated in the Green Job Corps. During the summer, ten students participated.

Deb Greig, who spent over fifteen years working in food justice in urban areas, took over as Farmer at Common Ground School in February 2017. She said around 65 young people per week were involved with the farm, either as a class or as a regular activity in the 2016-2017 school year. Greig has help on the one-acre farm from students every day, but the bulk of the work in the Spring and Fall is conducted by Greig and a part-time farm assistant. Each summer, the farm hires a crew of college age students– some of whom are Common Ground alumni or camp alumni– to work 20 hours a week. During my visit, Greig was busy teaching students how to weed, as well as preparing the last CSA distribution of the school year. That week’s share included Hakurei turnips, radishes, spinach, lettuce mix, lettuce heads, bok choi, asparagus and leeks.

“When you’re weeding, you really want to get everything by the roots, then shake out the roots, so you leave the dirt in the ground,” Greig explained to Johnson and her classmate as they worked. “Try to disrupt all the little guys, make piles of everything and we’ll bring it to the chickens. Get anything around the lettuce that isn’t lettuce. If you make it further than that it’s fennel, so get anything around the fennel that isn’t fennel. Thanks, you guys! It helps me a lot.”

Photo credit: CSA

CSA for Food Justice: a rare model

Generally, the one acre on which the farm and high tunnels sit produces about 8,000 pounds of food per season. The income is around $15,000. With its nonprofit status, Common Ground receives grants from foundations and donors that enable the school to keep the farm in operation, despite the fact that it’s not breaking even as a farm. “If you have an educational space as a farm, you’re probably not breaking even,” said Greig. Here, education is the product, and its value is different from the value of produce.

During the summer, Common Ground operates a mobile market that sells produce at senior centers in New Haven, as well as a farm stand that they operate once  week. The farm stand clientele are mostly families of kids attending Common Ground’s summer camp.

During the school year, Common Ground’s CSA (known in the school community as Garden Veggie Share) is open only to students and their families. Every Spring and Fall, families and students apply for membership. In Spring 2017, Greig accepted twenty of the thirty families who applied. When we spoke, she anticipated having enough food to feed forty families in Fall 2017. The program is self-selecting. Members include students who have worked on the farm before and students who haven’t worked on the farm but come from families seeking more and easier access to healthy food. CSA membership fees are based on a self-selecting graduated scale: at $5, $10, $15 or $20 per week. Members can pay in advance, or pay each week, and they can pay using EBT.

“When people apply to the garden veggie share, we try to get a selection of ages and levels of farm involvement, but we weigh it on freshman so they get that experience,” said Greig. “Economically, it’s kind of a cross section. We’re trying to figure out ways to think more about who’s joining and why. We also look at who lives in public housing and weight that in terms of accepting folks. We don’t get more applications from that sector unless we do outreach. There’s an education component there with the families. The folks who do apply – their children have usually had more points of contact with the farm, or they’re more proactive. If we’re able to do outreach it changes things a little bit.”

Greig described Common Ground as a unique community, where teachers, students and families all want to be involved. There are three major parts of the Common Ground community:

  • the high school,
  • the community programs, which involve outdoor education, and
  • the farm.

The farm exists to support the community through growing healthy food, which it sells to the cafeteria and to the Garden Veggie Share members, and through providing a place where students can come learn where their food comes from and feel like they’re part of meaningful work. The CSA model offers students and their families the opportunity to feel supported with affordable fresh food and to feel like they are giving back by supporting the farm itself. “When you’re picking up your share every week and maybe even helping with harvest and participating in that whole system it’s rewarding on both sides. Everything comes back full circle,” said Greig.

When “Eloise Santos,”, a Junior who started working on the farm after transferring to Common Ground School in her Sophomore year talks about her experience, it’s clear that Greig is right. Santos worked with Greig one period each day during the 2016-17 school year, and viewed the opportunity as a job shadow. “Early in the year when it was still a little cold, we had the heater in the greenhouse and we started some seedlings. I didn’t realize how fast they could grow. You just come in the next week and they’re like a few inches tall; they’re so cool. Planting things [in the farm] and seeing them all big now is really cool. I got to see the whole process this year. Pulling them out of the ground, rinsing them, and putting them in the bags for people to take home. Especially the people I know here that I’m good friends with– to hear them talk about it is really cool.”

At home, Santos convinced her parents to get chickens, ducks, a pig, and rabbits. She hopes to build a small greenhouse. “It’s kind of crazy, but it’s become like our crazy in a way,” she said. “I want to get broiler chickens like we do here, to raise for meat for neighbors and close friends.  And then I want to get layer chickens for eggs and then start a greenhouse. In my greenhouse, I want to try everything.”

Greig was surprised by the number of students who, like Santos, have developed an interest in farming-related careers as a result of their experience at Common Ground. Santos had no plans to work on the farm during the summer, but she told Greig she wanted to volunteer as often as possible. “I don’t want to stop,” Santos said.