From farm to table at Westtown School
By J. Chambless
Tim Mountz teaches agriculture and oversees the Westtown Farm.
By Lisa Fieldman
The Westtown School, which has been
recognized for its educational excellence and student diversity, was
founded by Quakers. There is a strong focus on stewardship, service
and social responsibility. In keeping with these Quaker ideals,
teachers Tim Mountz, Beth Pellegrino and Mitch Bernstein are
dedicated to supporting local and natural agriculture. At Westtown,
they’ve created a sustainable agrarian microcosm in which students
play a big role.
Mountz oversees the student-run farm at Westtown School. Known affectionately as “Farmer Tim,” he lights up with enthusiasm when talking about his students. In addition to teaching lower, middle and upper school science, Teacher Tim also works side by side with his student-farmers to grow organic vegetables on the Westtown farm. Utilizing two acres of gardens, a greenhouse and a smaller farm at the lower school, Tim has revamped the farm experience to be educational and exploratory. He explains, “We grow things from all around the world. Students can experience new tastes and smells, plus we grow stuff we use everyday.” The “everyday stuff” includes vegetables such as tomatoes, beans, lettuce, potatoes, and zucchini that are used to feed the school community. The students also help with a plot of land that is farmed to benefit the Chester County Food Bank. Mountz proudly says, “We recently planted 10,000 onions!”
When the student-farmer program began
years ago, there were only three interested students. The number has
swelled to twenty this year. In addition to working in the field,
the student-farmers plan and run agricultural events such as a fall
harvest and potato picking.
“We recently held an event for one hundred people and the kids ran it flawlessly,” Tim explains. It's clear he is very proud of his hard-working students. In between the farm chores the kids find time to have fun. Everyone is enjoying the new outdoor wood-burning pizza oven. “It’s huge, it’s fantastic!” Mountz enthuses. Located adjacent to the farm, the pizza oven was the focal point of this year’s Earth Day celebration. All the pizza ingredients were grown in Westtown soil. “We pulled garlic right from the garden,” Mountz says.
“The crusts were made from Pete’s Produce flour,” adds Pellegrino, the food service director.
The eager students jumped in to help Teacher Tim make the pies. “They saw I was getting behind and they just started making pizzas,” Mountz explains. “Despite flipping the first pizza upside down onto the hot stones, it was a great success.”
All of the crops grown by the student-farmers make an appearance in the dining hall. When meals include local and naturally raised meat and locally grown organic produce, they can’t fail to please the most finicky eater. There are always vegetarian and gluten-free options available. Westtown also boasts a scratch kitchen, meaning no processed baked goods are served. Everything is made from fresh ingredients.
Pellegrino arrived at Westtown 17 years ago. With a background in business dining, she came to Westtown because school dining intrigued her. She stayed because of the “awesome kids.” Pellegrino explains, “They inspire me every day. They care for the earth, the community and one another.”
Pellegrino enjoys getting to know the kids. Working in the kitchen is one of the service jobs performed by all students. “That’s how we grow a relationship, by the cutting board,” Pellegrino says. “You get to know their names and hear their stories. It’s such a gift to connect with these kids.”
She radiates excitement when speaking
about feeding the school community. “We are a conscientious
kitchen,” Pellegrino explains. “We’re respectful of using as
much local and naturally grown food as possible.” Feeding 700
people a day is a huge undertaking, especially when you are giving
them a farm to table experience. It’s a priority to use the
vegetables grown by Farmer Tim, as well produce grown by Peter Flynn,
of Pete’s Produce, who farms 200 acres of Westtown land.
“Everything that Tim and Peter grow, we say 'bring it in, let’s
make something amazing,'” Pellegrino says.
Pellegrino also purchases food from organizations that support sustainable agriculture, such as Lancaster Farm Fresh Co-op and the Common Market.
"We have the freedom to go out and find local farmers to supply what we need,” she explains. “Seven or eight years ago, three percent of our purchasing power was local, and we’ve been able to increase that to 35 percent. Today, we can state that all of our chicken and beef are locally and naturally raised.” Helping people make healthy food choices, like eating more vegetables, is made easier when students can enjoy the fruits of their labor. When a student-farmer brings freshly harvested vegetables up to the kitchen, then sees it at lunch labeled “farm tomato” it comes full circle. Sourcing organic and natural food supplies can be more expensive, but by working to change mindsets and palates, Pellegrino has not needed a budget increase to maintain a natural, sustainable kitchen. “We are actually saving money,” she says. “We have found ways to shift focus on the plate. Today, our lunch is meatless and no one will even notice.”
At the start of each school year, Pellegrino tells the students, “This is your kitchen, it is your home away from home.” She finds that kids gravitate toward the kitchen. She explains, “Many of our students are thousands of miles away from mom and dad. When there are challenges at school, just creating something in the kitchen can help relieve stress. It can be a great creative outlet for them.”
In addition to the kids who wander into the kitchen, Beth has student help to prepare meals. Mitch Bernstein is Westtown’s Work Program and Service Coordinator. To assist Pellegrino, Mitch has created vegetable prep crews as a work rotation.
“Cooking is naturally labor intensive,” comments Pellegrino. “We have crews stripping kale and chopping carrots. They are awesome!”
Bernstein explains how the work program
teaches responsibility. He says, “Students learn to show the
community they care by keeping things clean, neat and working. It’s
about taking initiative.”
This year, there are 18 different languages spoken by the student body, and despite cultural differences they all work side by side to keep the community thriving.
“You can have an athlete, an artist, a musician, an actor and a scientist all working together,” explains Bernstein. “It levels the playing field.”
It is important to Bernstein that the students understand why the work needs to be done, how it all relates. While removing thistles from the asparagus patch, the kids learn how the invasive weed impacts the crops' growth. Understanding the “why” helps integrate responsibility into every day school life. When Bernstein sends out the work program assignments, he always includes his tag line “Thanks for helping to keep Westtown running.”
Westtown recently won a $5,000 launch grant from The Campus Kitchens Project. Bernstein read about the opportunity and shared the idea with a student outreach director, who agreed it was a worthwhile endeavor. Campus Kitchen empowers students to fight hunger in their communities. Students re-purpose leftover food from their dining hall and from community businesses. They then deliver it to organizations that feed the hungry. To win the grant, the students had to create a compelling video explaining how they would implement the Campus Kitchen, and the need for it in their local community. The winning school was then picked based on the number of votes each video received. Westtown was competing with a college in Kentucky for one of the grants. The entire student body spread the word through email, Twitter and Facebook, and kept the votes coming in. “The support was amazing,” says Bernstein.
Students will be engaged in the program through fundraising, special events, food collection, and delivery. “It’s all encompassing,” says Bernstein, “we are trying to include as much of the student population as possible in the project.”
Westtown’s Campus Kitchen will be working primarily with the West Chester Senior Center. Talks with the center’s director revealed that senior citizens often lack fresh fruit. Bernstein immediately thought, 'How can we best do this? What is the quickest way to provide fruit for the seniors?'
Mountz had the answer: “Cherries.”
Using a portion of the grant money, cherry trees were planted. “Cherries are the quickest fruit to grow, easy to harvest, and are least affected by pests,” explains Mountz. In addition to the fruit and the leftovers, Westtown’s nutritionist will offer healthy food education and cooking demonstrations to the seniors. The school also has a long-standing relationship with City Team based in Chester, and through Campus Kitchen will continue to provide food to the organization.
What would a farm be without chickens? Westtown has petite poultry farmers who start raising chickens in first grade. At the lower school farm, chickens entertain and educate, while the students do all the hands-on work.
“Yesterday the coops were cleaned out, the water was changed and the chickens were fed, all by first-graders,” says Mountz. The chicken coop was built at the primary school farm last year. When Mountz received an estimate of $10,000 to run electricity and water to the farm, he quickly came up with an alternative solution. He had some unused solar panels that he attached to the coop. He then installed gutters and a rain barrel to collect water. “I spent $300 and the rain barrel was the most expensive part,” he laughs. “The solar panels power an automatic door that closes every evening to keep out the predators. We have high-tech chickens!”
Mountz is also giving the middle school a chance to play in the dirt. “The sixth grade is studying composting,” he explained. “They take all the farm residue and the prep scraps from the kitchen and create compost.” Turning waste into soil, they monitor heat, pH and moisture levels.
"When you take the screen off the wheelbarrow, the kids can’t keep their hands out of it,” Mountz said. “It’s such a beautiful thing. Looking to master new farming techniques, Westtown students are now learning about aquaponics. A Westtown alumnus with assistance from the design engineering class built an aquaponics system for the school. Consisting of two grow tanks and two fish tanks, the students are currently growing basil and kale. Eventually the fish tanks will house Tilapia and Sunfish.
The teachers see daily how the students benefit from their experiential education. Mountz describes watching a student have an epiphany when he tasted a freshly picked radish. “He asked why it tasted so different from a supermarket radish, and I told him it was because he grew it.” Pellegrino recalls a student who asked to opt out of sports for an internship in the kitchen. They explored sustainability, basic cooking skills, chopping technique and general kitchen management. “At the culmination of the program he made dinner for the whole community. It was awesome,” Pellegrino said. Bernstein shares the excitement of the students involved with the Kitchen Campus project as they plan how to help alleviate hunger. Social responsibility and a sense of community are visible values at Westtown. At the end of the day, when they gather for a meal, the students can appreciate the origin of the food on their plate and the cooperative effort that made it possible. Pellegrino sums it up best when she says, “At Westtown, the meeting house is our soul, but the dining hall is our heart.”