Connecting Community and Curriculum to Impact School Nutrition
County Health Rankings and Roadmaps, a Robert Woods Johnson Foundation program, named Cumberland County the worst county in New Jersey for Health Factors every year since 2011. The Health Factors rating is comprised of three categories: Health Behaviors which encompasses obesity, food environment, and physical inactivity, Clinical Care including those insured and uninsured, and Social & Economic Factors such as children in poverty, single-parent households and income inequality. As a result, the Bridgeton Food Services Department, led by Warren DeShields, chose to focus their attention on constructing community gardens to combat obesity through education.
Growing up in Bridgeton, Warren knows the struggles families have with gaining access to healthy food due to their location as well as the budgetary restrictions they encounter. Warren, who attended Bridgeton Public Schools from kindergarten through twelfth grade, was recognized as a standout athlete in football and track and field. After graduation, he attended the Academy of Culinary Arts at Atlantic Cape Community College, earning a degree in Culinary Arts. Warren (Chef D) obtained a position as banquet director at Gateway Community Action Agency under the guidance of their CEO, Albert Kelly. When an opportunity in the Bridgeton Public Schools opened up, Warren became the high school cafeteria manager, working his way up through the ranks to his current position as the Director of Food Services.
The venture for school gardens began with a Farm to School planning grant in 2013. In the fall of 2017, the district had the opportunity to procure a 1500 square foot greenhouse through the assistance of Jonathan Cummings from Revive South Jersey, a donation by Procacci Brothers, and additional funding from New Jersey Community Capital. Speaking on the greenhouse, Joseph M. Procacci, CEO of Procacci Brothers and Ag-Mart Produce Inc. shared, “We are so thankful for this opportunity to partner with Bridgeton High School to provide their students with a real life science experiment that teaches valuable skills and helps them to gain an understanding of where their food comes from. We hope that our donation instills in Bridgeton’s students a greater appreciation for agriculture and that increasing their exposure to fruits and vegetables encourages healthy eating and lifestyle habits.”
Warren and his food services team, Jacqueline Mermer, RD and Allison Wentzell, RD, collaborated with the district’s Building and Grounds department to construct raised bed gardens at two elementary schools that added 3,024 square feet of new growing space and purchased four Grow Walls capable of producing up to 75 plants each for the elementary and pre-schools. The first phase of the project was under way. Since then, a Learning Through Gardening grant was obtained in 2019 through the NJ Agriculture Society that provides seeds and professional development to the schools. The combination of this grant and the raised bed gardens impacts over 1,600 elementary students and their surrounding communities.
In order to make this a sustainable program, Warren enlisted the support of his wife, Jennifer, the high school math and science supervisor and his mentor, the now Mayor of the “Great City of Bridgeton” Albert Kelly. “The Bridgeton Public Schools raising nutritious, homegrown produce at the high school is exciting and rewarding on many levels,” said Albert B. Kelly, CCAP, President & CEO of Gateway and Mayor of the City of Bridgeton. “Our Mill Creek Urban Farm in Bridgeton, combined with the efforts of the Bridgeton Public Schools, will help make healthy opportunities a reality for our youth, who are our leaders of tomorrow. Growing produce and growing leaders is indeed exciting and rewarding,” Kelly added. Through these connections, high school Nutrition and Biology students attended field trips to Mill Creek Farm, Gateway Community Action Agency’s hydroponic greenhouses, to see what their finished product would look like and learn how to operate their systems. The teachers also attended professional development on operating hydroponic systems, and the Biology curriculum was rewritten to include greenhouse lessons and activities in every unit.
Using the grant funds from New Jersey Healthy Communities Network through the NJ Department of Health, the greenhouse is now an official outdoor classroom with tables and chairs. One major barrier that remained was extending the growing season through the winter months, and heat was installed before the first frost of this year. This allows the district’s students to go on field trips to our own greenhouse and learn about school nutrition through cafeteria and greenhouse tours and activities.
Over 600 Biology students work on a scheduled weekly rotation learning STEM skills while working hands-on to plant seeds, monitor water efficiency, and glean their products. During the end of the 2018-2019 and beginning of the 2019-2020 school years, students have taste tested the produce through recipes created by Chef D. “I see this as our greatest opportunity to ‘Bridge the Gap’ between education and food services. We feel like the cafeteria is the largest classroom in the school; the greenhouse and the produce from the hydroponic system supports the district’s curriculum in the classroom and the cafeteria. Teaching our students how to grow healthy fruits and vegetables is a direct solution to our community’s issue of food insecurity,” said Warren DeShields, Director of Food Services for Bridgeton Public Schools. The high school engineering students have been using their design process to troubleshoot algae, ground sinking, and water movement issues.
Future plans for the gardens and the greenhouse are in the developing stages. These include incorporating a second system into the current greenhouse, procuring a second greenhouse for the high school, transferring the grow walls at the high school to the Pre-K classes to be educated and mentored by the high school Biology students on how to use them, and increasing literacy in the elementary schools through the purchase of books for their classrooms on various gardening and nutrition topics.
About the Grantee
The Mission is to provide multiple pathways for students to attain the NJ Student Learning Standards and to meet the needs of our diverse student population. All students will be provided with the opportunity and resources to succeed through the creation of safe learning environments, which will enable students to graduate from high school and become productive member of a global community.