Rooftop garden opens atop charter school

Students from Mott Haven Academy survey their herb garden with Chef Ellie Krieger (left) and Deputy Bronx Borough President Aurelia Greene (right).

Before the cold sets in, a Mott Haven charter school has opened a rooftop vegetable and herb garden where chives, lavender and lettuce sprout up from the dirt. The garden has already been integrated into the school’s curriculum, from science class, to garden club, to the students’ daily lunch routines.

Mott Haven Academy kicked off the garden’s opening Oct. 24 with a lesson on healthy food choices from chef Ellie Krieger. Krieger stood in front of three tables filled with bowls of cooked grains as a group of about 20 fourth graders tested the taste. 

“Nutrients are really good for your body,” said Melanie Madrigal, 9, who spooned some quinoa onto her plate. “[Quinoa] has a flavor that I really like. My mom cooked it at home.”

In a neighborhood where one third of adults are obese, the garden provides hands-on opportunities for kids to learn about eating healthy and growing their own food early on.

The school cafeteria also provides a daily family-style lunch, where kids serve themselves from bowls of food on the table instead of receiving their meals on a tray. This way they learn to make better decisions about portion control, said Jessica Nauoikas, the school’s principal.

“It gives them the chance to interact with their food and build their own plate,” she said.

The rooftop garden was built with $10,000 of seed money from Bolthouse Farms, a California carrot company that also donated vegetables and herbs, and $20,000 from private donors, said Jen Apple of New York Foundling. The school has 265 students from kindergarten through fifth grade and plans to continue adding grades each year until it has an 8th grade.

Haven Academy, a school designed for children in the welfare system, was recently placed on the Department of Education’s list of low-performing schools. The department uses indicators like test scores and overall school environment to rate schools.

Administrators are working hard to improve the school’s performance, and the garden will help, said Nauoikas.

“I think having well-balanced nutrition does help test scores,” she said, explaining that children develop certain abilities when learning to read and follow recipes. “It builds skills like reading comprehension, following directions, map skills.”

As it drizzled outside on the plots of lettuce, kale and herbs, the kids sat inside around tables filled with celery, beans and other produce, mixing the ingredients into their own bowls. Some kids picked basil leaves from a plant and put them into their meals, while a bowl of tomatoes made its way around the table.

Kashawn Gonzalez, 9, like his classmates, liked quinoa best. This wasn’t his first time trying it.

“I tasted it at lunch,” he said, as he scooped more onto his plate.