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Foodies urge you to go slow

The name Slow Food USA basically says it all about this organization founded to counter America’s fast−food culture.

Comprising over 15,000 members split into 170 chapters, the organization supports and promotes the cultivation and enjoyment of local, seasonal, and sustainably grown foods. In a variety of ways, Slow Food fights the good fight against the industrialization of America’s food system that took hold during the Industrial Revolution in the 1800s and has accelerated ever since.

One thing the organization does is to support gardens in schools. Two Williamsburg schools – Automotive High School and I.S. 71 – are among the four in New York City that receive Slow Food funds for their gardens.

Sandra McLean, a Boerum Hill resident and chair of Slow Food’s New York City chapter, said the need for these gardens is more acute for schools with low−income populations like the two Williamsburg public schools. These schools have student bodies hailing from low−income neighborhoods with high obesity and diabetes rates in Williamsburg and beyond.

“The impact fast food has had on these poor communities is staggering. Grocery stores have pulled out in place of fast food places,” McLean said.

“They don’t have grocery stores, they have bodegas. But what’s in a bodega? Maybe an apple, a banana, an onion?”

Instead, McLean seeks to foster an appreciation of fresh foods, all the way from seedling to the plate.

“It’s this notion of food becoming more precious,” she said. “When you grow your own food, you’re more attuned to what you’re eating. For these children, they’re really getting exposure to food on a completely different level.”

She also touted the psychological and lifestyle benefits of gardening for city residents.

“For urban dwellers, it forces you to slow down a little and let the seedlings grow.”

The garden at Automotive – which can be found right in front of the 50 Bedford Avenue school – began in minimal form in the fall of 2006 with the planting of flower bulbs. By the following fall, it had expanded to include lettuce, garlic and herbs. By the spring of 2008, there were strawberries, green beans, okra, snap−peas, and beats.

The garden existed before the Slow Food grant, but the money – each school gets around $2,000 – will allow the school to run an after−school cooking and tasting club that will expand the garden’s reach. The funding will also help establish a weekly market stand available to neighborhood residents that the school hopes to start this spring.

“It’s extremely important for this population – most of these kids come from neighborhoods that are food deserts,” said Jenny Kessler, the teacher who runs the program.

“I don’t expect them to change their eating habits right away, but as long as they have those skills and they’re thinking about things and asking questions, that’s a start.”

At I.S. 71 (215 Heyward Street), the Slow Food funding helped convert an overgrown but underutilized garden in the school’s center courtyard into a verdant gem.

This fall, the school planted and harvested leafy vegetables. Come spring, the assortment will be greatly expanded.

Megan Milewski, who supervises the garden along with fellow teacher Christine Simone, said she plans to appeal to her school’s large Latino population by growing cilantro and various forms of peppers essential to Latino cuisine.

Like Kessler, Milewski was inspired to start the garden after noticing the dearth of fresh foods in her students’ diets.

“We would be eating a piece of fruit or a vegetable, and they would say, ‘Are you being punished? We only eat vegetables when we’re punished,’” she recalled.

“We thought if they grow their own vegetables and maybe owned it, they might actually eat it.”

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