WORDS BY RACHEL TRAVERS / PHOTOGRAPH BY MICHAEL PIAZZA
If you’ve driven by the Ambrose Elementary School on High Street in Winchester, you’ve probably seen it: a 30’ x 40’ raised garden plot built on a span of empty land that sits between the school and the historic Sanborn House. Envisioned by chef/owner Vittorio Ettore of Bistro 5 in West Medford and A Tavola in Winchester (and parent to two students at the school), the garden was built by volunteers and is tended to by teachers, parents, and the school’s fourth graders. The idea behind this hands-on food education program was to create a lasting connection between children and their food, ultimately fostering healthy eating habits and a genuine appreciation for fresh foods, but that was just the beginning. The program has proven to be so much more to many of the children.
Chef Ettore had already been very involved in the school, generously catering big events and benefits, so when he contacted the interim principal about creating the garden the response was very positive. The principal even suggested that Ettore connect with Anne Pace, a 4th grade teacher who had previously written a successful local grant who might help get the garden going.
Pace loved the idea of working with Ettore. Her students were already studying plants, so there was a built-in curriculum connection. She wrote a second grant which raised $7,000 from The Winchester Foundation for Educational Excellence (WFEE). Ettore helped raise the additional $5,000 needed to build the garden by holding a series of wine dinners at Bistro 5, and the Seed to Plate Garden was born.
Everybody else quickly got on board. The Parent Teacher Organization (PTO) agreed to set aside some money for the garden each year. Parents offered to weed, water and feed the garden during the summer with the help of their children. Parents and volunteers even organized a food fest at harvest time to celebrate their efforts and taste the rewards.
Once they had the money, Ettore took over as the driving force and quickly coordinated the garden design and the contractors. A split rail fence went around the garden. An irrigation system went in, reducing the amount of maintenance the garden would need as it grew over the summer. The children excitedly watched this progress from their classroom windows. The idea was to make the garden as sustainable as possible, even generating additional money each year so they could maintain it and possibly add new components on an annual basis. Ettore says that this second year they have actually hit that mark.
The first year, Ettore started some of the plants at his own home, like the cherry tomatoes, while the students started beans, carrots and herbs at the school. They also planted kale, Swiss chard, edamame, and a little French melon (green on the outside, yellowish on the inside). Purple, white, yellow and orange carrots all went into the ground, as well as yellow and red/whitechioggiabeets.These were particularly appealing because the entire plant, beet and greens, could be eaten. Fennel, green onions and chives, corn, lots of herbs like Italian basil, Thai basil, cilantro and parsley were planted, as well as some edible flowers like hardy, bright orange nasturtiums.
In fact, it was the nasturtiums that gave Ettore one of those “be still my heart moments” that illustrated the effect of the program. It was the first summer and he and his four-year-old daughter Gabriella went over to the garden plot to weed with a couple of parents and older school children. Suddenly, he heard his daughter instructing another child; “No, no, that’s not a weed! It’s a nasturtium.”
These words from the mouth of a small child sum up part of Seed to Plate’s mission.
Cristy Walsh, mother of a fifth grade son, and another parent, Beth Caplow, talked with Ettore at length. “We found out how much they spent for seeds, how much to run the irrigation, how much top soil or fertilizer we might need, and went ahead and figured these numbers. Most of the money is going to be funded through the 5th graders as their gift back to the school community, and some of the money to continue will come from the PTO as a rainy day fund,” explained Walsh. They figured it would definitely be less than $1,000 —and hoped to keep costs closer to $500 a year to continue sustainably, thus allowing it to be a long-lasting program.
In the fall of 2011, after the first season of the project, the 4th graders moved on to their 5th grade classrooms. It was their task to harvest the bounty from the summer, bring it home to their parents in raw form, then come back to school with simply prepared dishes and dips and dressings so they could taste everything. Crispy roasted kale was the biggest hit, with the beets coming in second.
This past winter and spring, the students also participated in a fund-raising event. They planted lettuces and Asian greens because these plants like the cold weather. Within six weeks, they were up. In late May the 4th graders took turns harvesting and cleaning the greens, then packaged individual salads, complete with herbs and nasturtiums, to bring to A Tavola to promote the Ambrose Garden Salad. This became a bit of restaurant theater.
Who would serve the salad at the restaurant? Fifth-grader Collin Murphy, who had been involved in the planting and harvesting, was chosen by a lottery for this very important job. He would stand alone inside the restaurant on a designated night at the salad table, make and mix the individual salads, then serve them to the tables who generously ordered the $25.00 salad. Collin both outdid himself and surprised Ettore and many of the customers.
The purpose of this fundraiser was to raise funds to build a composter. Young Murphy, clad in a chef’s coat, took over the salad making table with aplomb. He made, then served, the salads as they were ordered throughout the restaurant, then worked the front of the house to promote the Seed to Plate program. He moved from table to table introducing himself, explaining the program, explaining the salad, and explaining that they wanted to build a composter out of wood to blend with their beautiful garden.
Murphy was a success: $300 was raised, enough for the composter. Even his mentor, seasoned chef Ettore, was blown away by the poised manner this young boy brought to the situation. Definitely a mentoring gesture with outstanding results.
(To take this win-win-win situation one further step in understanding the power a program like this can have, Collin Murphy, “All-American boy,” as his mother described him, has begun taking cooking classes at Euro Stove in Beverly, and cooking for the family at home.)
Chef Ettore has done many things that contribute to his magical mentoring. He has the school children come to the restaurant and talked to them about the menu, or takes them to a produce market, or a fish market, or a cheese farm. He even cleaned fresh-caught fish with the kids. It really became important to influence the children at this age, “to get them excited about food and ultimately about eating well,” he says.
Ettore helped them start composting, teaching the children what was compostable — vegetable scraps, fruit peels, coffee grinds, egg shells. The children even brought in scraps from home and he showed them how to layer them with dry leaves and how the combination all broke down. That first year they just created their own small pile outside of the raised garden for the composting project. But this fall there will be the new wooden composting structure, built with the proceeds of the Ambrose Salad project, to elegantly house the decomposing matter before it gets turned into the soil once again.
The Seed to Plate project has already became self-perpetuating and the summer of 2012 represents only the second year of the program. The next project to come from Seed to Table? There will undoubtedly be an Ambrose Elementary Cookbook in the future. The students have already started collecting their own and Chef Ettore’s recipes.
The Ambrose School is located at 27 High Street in Winchester.
Chef Vittorio Ettore can always be found in one of his two restaurants (unless he’s gardening): Bistro 5, 5 Playstead Road in Medford or in Winchester at A Tavola, 34 Church Street.
Rachel Travers is a freelance food and lifestyle writer who has been contributing to the Boston Globe for 15 years—and to Edible Boston for its proud five! She can be reached at email@example.com.