The Farm at Walker Jones would not exist without a great group of collaborators working together on behalf of Walker Jones students. An influential collaborator has been Melina Shannon-DiPietro, the Director of the Sustainable Food Project at Yale University, which includes an amazing urban farm in New Haven. Melina is the designer of the Walker Jones Farm and has been on ongoing advisor to the project. The following is a recent interview with Melina:
1. What makes working with children in a garden or urban farm important?
Working the land changes a child’s relationship with food, the environment, with the land. It turns out when children are involved in growing vegetables, they are more likely to eat those vegetables. New Haven public school students – and our students, like children in DC, are in the demographic most likely to suffer from diabetes and obesity – they leave the farm saying, “my favorite food is spinach,” or “my favorite food is cilantro.” So working in a garden has an immediate, positive impact on their health. And we need children who grow up to be environmental stewards. If children have regular access to the land – any piece of land – and develop a connection to that land – they are more likely to act as environmental stewards as they grow up.
2. What was compelling to you about the opportunity to design Walker Jones’ Farm?
I love D.C. Some of my dearest friends live in D.C., and I’m always looking for excuses to spend time in D.C. What was compelling to me was the clear sense of mission driving people like you, Braden, Sidra, and Frances. And this was supported and complemented by Chancellor Rhee’s support for healthy foods and school gardens. Then there was the space itself. That land was just waiting to be farmed.I get requests from around the nation to get involved in projects, but the Walker Jones school was a unique convergence – a place I love, people with purpose, and an adminstration that appreciated that purpose. A push from Alice Waters didn’t hurt any either.
3. What are some key components of the farm design that are important to you?
School farms, at their very best, are part classroom, part art gallery, part science lab. They are places of learning, observation, and experimentation. The design for the Walker Jones garden has all those elements: the entire space is a place of learning & experimentation by nature of the project; the orchards and the perennial beds are places of particular beauty and therefore, observation. What I like most is that we made a plan that dips out into the neighborhood. Once the farm is thriving, as it grows into itself, you’ll see vines, beans and morning glories growing up the fence, drawing people in. The design is also economical, and flexible. The beds are made for productivity, and can be adopted to crops. You understood the importance of productivity from the beginning, Braden. And Sidra had this vision of fig trees that just called for an orchard.
4. Why should schools be interested in food production and what benefits and challenges does it present?
We all eat. It’s our most fundamental connection to the land. It’s also our must fundamental challenge. In the next four decades we must figure out – globally – how to feed 9 billion people in a way that cares for the health of people, the land, and the farmers and laborers growing that food. We’ve got a better chance if we allow young people to experience growing their own food. Growing food is hard work. And while our students either here in New Haven or at Walker Jones might never be farmers, they will be eaters. And they will eat with a better sense of what’s good for them and good for the land after working on a farm.
5. What has your experience at the Sustainable Food Project at Yale done to inform your thinking about food and growing?
Everything. The Yale Farm is where I learned patience; so, I learned a lot about human growth there. Our project – the work my colleagues and I do, also includes a dining hall program that pilots local, seasonal, and sustainable food in Yale’s dining halls, a series of courses and extracurricular programs related to food and agriculture. Both in the field and at the table I learn the delight of good food; the importance of sharing food in community; and the pleasure of work.
6. What have you had the most success in growing at the Sustainable Food Project?
Hmm. I’ve got a weakness for flowers, and I think our Casa Blanca lilies are out of this world. .But otherwise, I’d challenge you to try Costata Romanesco. It’s a ribbed zucchini – my family is from Italy and costata means ribbed, or striped, and this zucchini is amazing. Sweet, dense, delicate. Never mushy. Never flavorless.
7. How to you think the The Farm at Walker Jones can benefit students and families?
With the right resources, this farm can transform this intersection, the school, the neighborhood. Dedicated, dynamic leaders and teachers, with a real appreciation for good food, thoughtful teaching, and the power of community can help this farm become a launching pad for building health, leadership, and community.
8. What are the biggest surprises you have dealt with at the Sustainable Food Project or an area that the project has effected that was unexpected?
Adding a wood-burning hearth oven changed everything. The farm had always been a place where people engaged in hard work, and real community. But once we added the wood-burning hearth oven, the community suddenly came together. Students get excited about cooking; families share food; neighbors trade recipes for simple meals, cooked at home, without lots of fat or sugar. It’s a recipe for health.
9. What are some of the daily challenges of running an urban farm that many people may not think about?
Oh my! So many. They’re all good. There’s fewer deer, but more visitors. Sometimes I believe we need a full-time farm manager and a full-time question-answerer. Students, families, neighbors, young and old people, come in and they want to learn, and they want to tell their stories.
10. What tool or garden implement can you not do without?
I answered this question first. I can not do without the broadfork. It is my all-time favorite. Part aerobic-workout, part soil aerator, and part pogo stick.
The broadfork – imagine a very large, very heavy fork – deeply aerates soil without damaging the soil structure or mixing the layers. That keeps the soil – and the microbes in it – in good health.