When then-prospective parent Lori Rosman contacted The New Century School this past Spring about enrolling her son in the pre-primary program, one of her first questions was about TNCS’s on-premise greenhouse. “I was excited that TNCS has a garden and is growing some of their own food,” she said. “Our son is very curious about cooking and always asks, ‘what are the ingredients?’ in everything.” Ms. Rosman also happens to be a Public Health Informationist at Johns Hopkins University, where an article about urban gardening had recently circulated. The article warned about some potential health risks of unsafe urban gardening methods, such as using contaminated soil. City soil can contain unsafe lead and asbestos levels, for example, especially in areas where construction or demolition has been going on. Urban gardening can be perfectly safe, but the gardener needs to take certain precautions, which novice gardeners might be unaware of. And the number of urban gardeners in the United States is steadily growing—up 29% in the last 5 years from 7 million to 9 million people, according to the National Gardening Association, so this information comes none too soon.
“I felt an obligation to educate myself,” said Ms. Rosman, so she approached TNCS Admissions Director Robin Munro with her questions. “I appreciated that Robin took my questions seriously and suggested going to talk to Chef Emma [Novashinski] about my concerns.” Chef Emma was well aware of the issue, and, together, the three discussed the safe practices she uses. “It was very reassuring!” said Ms. Rosman.
TNCS Master Gardener and Executive Chef Emma Novashinski was aware of the site’s history, which is the first step for planning an urban garden safe for food-growing, according to a guide by Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future on soil safety. The Center also provides interactive maps of Baltimore food gardens and other resources. As luck would have it, Chef Emma selected the location for TNCS’s greenhouse on the very spot a large community garden had recently occupied. Those savvy gardeners employed regular composting and wood-chipping to keep their soil healthy as well as annually replenished it.
Once it’s clear that the site is probably contaminant free, regular soil testing is the next step to ensure safe food-growing. Naturally, this is also something Chef Emma always knew. “When I first suggested the greenhouse project,” she said, “[TNCS Co-Executive Directors] questioned the safety. We’re feeding children after all. I test lead levels and alkalinity about every 8 months, and the pH is usually neutral and the lead level has always been well below a hazardous level.”
In a case of very good timing, Chef was due to test the soil for the coming 2014–2015 academic year. On Friday, 8/8/14, she reported: “We are sufficient in all levels except nitrogen, so we will be incorporating blood meal [an organic fertilizer] and nitrate of soda into the soil to remedy this nutrient deficiency, which was probably caused by watering and rainfall.” All fine!
Says the Center for a Livable Future’s website:
The potential health, social, environmental, and economic benefits of urban farms and gardens are far-reaching. For example, studies have found associations between urban community gardens and increased access to healthy food, opportunities for exercise, stronger social cohesion in neighborhoods, and higher property values. And like any green space, urban farms and gardens offer essential ecosystem services like moderating temperatures and reducing storm water runoff.
And, TNCS is feeding students hands down the best homemade, locally sourced lunch around as a direct result of the greenhouse and other nearby gardens and farms. So let’s keep this wonderful—and safe when done right—practice going and growing!
Welcome to TNCS’s 2014–2015 academic year, Rosman family, and thanks for suggesting this extremely worthwhile topic for Immersed!