Award Recognizes Healthy Harvest at Metuchen School

Staff Writer/Sentinel

It seems only natural that Metuchen’s Campbell Elementary School was honored recently for its health and wellness initiatives.Representatives from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the N.J. Department of Agriculture Division of Food and Nutrition recently visited the school to present it with a HealthierUS School Challenge Award at the Bronze Level, along with a $500 prize.The challenge is a voluntary national certification initiative for schools participating in the National School Lunch Program. Sponsored by the USDA Food and Nutrition Service, the initiative encourages all schools to take a leadership role in helping students to make healthier choices in diet and exercise that will last a lifetime.

Among the things that made Campbell stand out are an edible garden planted in two sheltered courtyards in the center of the school, and a lunchroom “farm stand” provided by Pomptonian Food Services, which offers students a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables.

Whenever possible, Pomptonian uses fresh fruit, vegetables and herbs from the edible garden in its recipes, according to the company. In addition, the group offers whole-grain bread, rice, pasta and fat-free milk.

Based in Fairfield, the company serves more than 75 school districts in the state.

“When I arrived here four-and-a-half years ago as principal, the grounds were just a mess. I decided that I really wanted to do some beautification of the grounds, and I spoke to two parents, Jirapon Chambers and Joann Falkenstein,” Campbell Principal Florence Carter said. “Along with the Garden Club of Metuchen, they came in the summer of 2010 and cleared out all the bramble in one of our courtyards and decided to plant an edible garden.” The garden has been maintained by those two parents, along with students who learn about gardening through their efforts.

The group first started growing herbs and other foods, including mint, parsley, pumpkins and string beans.

“Then Pomptonian decided they would start using some of our herbs and some of the things we have grown to serve during lunch … in a ‘farm stand,’ ” Carter said.

The company has equipped all Metuchen schools with its “farm stands,” according to Cindy Sue Schaller, operations manager for Pomptonian.

Metuchen High School has an edible garden, as well.

“When the produce is in season from both the edible gardens at Campbell and at Metuchen High, we’re able to offer a vast array of produce to the students,” said Patty Baxter, Pomptonian’s on-site food-service director at Campbell Elementary School.

She added that certain items are not available in the colder months, but herbs grown in the garden are dried and later used in soups, sauces and sautéed vegetables.

Schaller said that when spring arrives, they use items that sprout earlier, including strawberries.

“We only started this last year. It’s very exciting,” she said.

Every day, the “farm stand” offers baskets filled with a colorful array of fruits and vegetables, including legumes, green vegetables, starchy vegetables, carrots, apples, oranges, pears, bananas and oranges, she said.

Although their children will be graduating from Campbell this year, Falkenstein and Chambers have expressed a desire to continue working on the edible garden with the students who attend the school, according to Carter.

She said the $500 grant will be used to help improve the garden.

“This award will help them to continue their work, provide more produce and herbs for Pomptonian to use, and provide the children with a more varied and expansive gardening experience,” Carter said.

In addition, Campbell students take part in enhanced physical education programs, including a “gym club” offered twice a week for third- and fourth-grade students after school. Teachers also set aside 10 to 15 minutes a day for yoga, stretches, exercises or a walk around the outside of the building.

Carter, who has been teaching in Metuchen for 28 years and working in education for 35 years, will be retiring at the end of this year. Edward Porowski, the school’s language arts supervisor, will be taking over as principal of Campbell Elementary School in January.