Sep 23, 2013
Hotchkiss, Among Nation's Top Private Schools, Even Has a Farm to Teach Sustainability
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Mr. Hahn admitted that it is hard for students from affluent families who have been sent to a school in the verdant Northwest Corner of Connecticut to fully apprehend the seriousness of the global climate crisis. But working on the farm, producing food that soon finds its way to the prep school’s dining room tables, brings a sense of reality to the process of feeding the world’s population.
“The school produces about 1.5 percent of the food that we eat on campus,” he said, “and, all told, about 39 percent of the food is locally or organically produced or is fair traded [a movement that helps producers in developing countries to achieve better trading conditions and that promotes sustainability]. We would like 50 to 60 percent of the food we serve to be in that category. We think that is doable this year.”
Central to that increase will be a new food storage facility. Ground was broken this fall and Mr. Hahn said the building will provide three rooms for cool storage of root vegetables on the ground floor while an upper level will feature a large deck that can be used for gatherings, an industrial kitchen and a Harkness Table, a large, oval table used in classrooms at Hotchkiss to facilitate discussions.
Hotchkiss has even used its economic clout to move its food supplier, Sodexo, a French multinational corporation, to consider alternative solutions. Sodexo, one of the largest food services companies in the world, is, according to Mr. Hahn, “embedded in the industrial farming system.”
But, he added, “We are in a partnership with them and they have to supply what we want. Sodexo has signed on to the Real Food challenge and will produce 15 to 20 percent ‘real food.’” As a result, “the kids will develop a different appreciation of what food tastes like,” he said.
Ninth-graders entering the school in the fall are immediately engaged in the farming enterprise. “The ninth-graders have a context-building experience with food, water and energy,” said Mr. Hahn. Their first task is to harvest the crops planted in the spring by other students. When spring rolls around again, the students experience the beginning of the growth cycle as they plant the crops that will be harvested by next year’s ninth-graders. During the summer the crops are tended by a team of students who live in the area.
To encourage more hands-on participation, Hotchkiss started FFEAT (Fairfield Farm Environmental and Adventure Team) as an alternative to sports. After classes, the members are bused to the farm, where they mend fences, feed chickens and clear trails, as well as plant and harvest crops. About once a month, faculty member, Charles Noyes teaches them how to prepare a dinner from the crops they’ve handpicked, and from the chickens they’ve raised and processed at the farm.
“They used to be kind of the ‘outlier’ kids,” said Mr. Hahn. “Now the program is oversubscribed. It is so restorative for kids who are running the prep school rat race to come here.” It is equally restorative for faculty. Throughout the year, the school uses the farm as an outdoor lab, with everything from environmental science classes studying soil chemistry to poetry classes drawing inspiration from the landscape. Mr. Noyes has been charged with helping other teachers to take full advantage of the opportunities the farm offers.