Community Column: iDig2Learn

Inspiring young people to problem-solve helps sharpen our thinking and may very well save our existence. It is obvious that growing plants reveals the wonders of science, but what isn’t so obvious is that planting together helps us get to know each other more deeply. Healthy cities need parks and green space, and children who experience nature benefit from the calming effects of being outdoors. iDig2Learn allows children and their families to experience science and plant life by growing healthy food and interacting with nature. By watching city children, who rarely touch soil, grow their own food, you witness the deep joy and connection that overcomes them. You just can’t touch broccoli through a computer.

iDig2Learn educates children about the food they eat. In the PBS special In Defense of Food, journalist Michael Pollan gives simple advice: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Americans are experiencing obesity at alarming rates, due to both their lack of movement and eating processed foods. Food boxes on grocery shelves sport loud advertising slogans to attract us, unlike the quiet, unpackaged vegetable and fruit section with the real food. This disconnect was obvious when one iDig2Learn-er, looking around our science garden, asked, “What is good to eat here?” When lettuce was pointed out, she asked, “Wait, is that like lettuce in the store?” After hearing it was not only like it, it was it, she took a quick taste, bringing a big smile and the exclamation, “It tastes like lettuce, but… more fresh!”

iDig2Learn advocates awareness about eliminating unnecessary waste. A 2012 study by the Department of Sanitation showed the City’s commercial waste stream was made up to 35% organic food waste, 37% paper, and 17% other recyclables. Therefore, nearly 90% of our waste could be diverted from a landfill. The Department created 0X30, a program with the goal of contributing 0% waste to landfills by 2030. The Garden Club led the initiative for an Island-based residential food scrap drop site, hosted by BigReuse and the NYC Compost Project. iDig2Learn, RIOC, PS/IS 217 PTA, RIRA, and the Girl Scouts support these efforts with morning setup, cleanup, and data collection. The drop is held every Saturday near the Wengerd Farmer’s Market. Since November 28, 2015, nearly three tons of food scrap waste from over 1,200 resident drop-offs has been diverted from landfills. That data will be shared with the State via RIOC.

iDig2Learn also helps children interact with nature. In May 2015 the U.S. launched a campaign to save the monarch butterfly by planting milkweed along Interstate 35. In July and October, supported by grants from Grow to Learn, the Citizens Committee of NYC, and The City Gardens Club of New York City, iDig2Learn collaborated with multiple Island organizations to kick off the Monarch Butterfly Corridor Project. RIOC, the Garden Club, the Parents’ Network, the Youth Program, the PS/IS 217 PTA, the Historical Society, and Girl Scout troops 3001, 3244, and 3245 created several milkweed plant sites to help restore the butterfly’s habitat. We hope to see monarch butterflies stop by twice a year on their eastern migration from Mexico to Canada and back. Be sure to take a walk by the lighthouse, Octagon field near the Garden Club’s garden entrance, and the flag pole turnaround on Main Street to see how the milkweed plants are doing.

Please join iDig2Learn at the 32nd Annual Green Thumb GrowTogether conference today (Saturday, March 19) at Hostos Community College (450 Grand Concourse, Bronx.) The conference celebrates New Yorkers who garden and greening professionals from all over the City. I will be presenting at a workshop called “Learning from the Challenges of Creating an Urban Pollinator Habitat” alongside Ursula Chanse from Bronx Green-Up and the New York Botanical Garden and Chrissy Word from Butterfly Project NYC and the City Parks Foundation. Children under 12 are free and adults are $7. (See box on page 13 for more details.)

On Monday, March 28, at 4:15pm, iDig2Learn will reunite PS/IS 217 students, the Garden Club, RIOC, and Girl Scout troops 3001, 3244, and 3245 with Trees New York, an environmental and urban forestry nonprofit organization, to check on the progress of the apple trees we planted together last October near the Octagon soccer field. Trees New York’s Director of Youth Programs, Cheryl Blaylock, and arborist Sam Bishop chose five unusual varieties of trees known for tasty apples: Crimson Gold, King David, Pink Pearl, Red Summer Rambo, and Tolman Sweet. Girl Scout Olivia Schaefer measured her height next to the trees to record their growth. She plans on doing this annually, and even joined the City Parks Foundation’s Green Girls, a program that inspires young women to excel as environmental scientists, because of her experiences with this and other iDig2Learn initiatives. Like Olivia, we can hardly wait for the apples to grow, but thankfully patience, along with pruning, is taught as part of the multi-week spring educational session Trees New York provides. Islanders Vicki Feinmel and Willa Klein participated in Trees New York’s citizen pruners course and are now certified to help keep our trees looking their best.

Seeing how enthusiastic children were about learning science through plant life, coupled with PS/IS 217’s desire to expand its STEM curriculum, led to the pursuit of a 21st-century outdoor classroom in the form of a green roof. Along with being a haven for wildlife, it will be a model for other schools in the city and a welcoming place to learn for generations to come. This 1.5 million dollar Green Roof Project secured $500,000 from City Council Member Ben Kallos’ 2015 Participatory Budget for District 5 and $250,000 from Manhattan Borough President Gale A. Brewer’s capital funds, but this is only half of the required funding. Saturday, March 26, marks the start of the 2016 Participatory Budget voting, a process that allows residents to vote on how one million tax dollars will be spent in their district. Of the fourteen projects on the District 5 ballot this year, two would directly impact the Island, including the balance of funding needed to finish the STEM-focused Green Roof Project and create a science hub. To vote you do not need to be a registered voter or U.S. citizen; you only need to be a resident of District 5. This year, anyone over the age of 14 can vote, giving more young people a voice and a choice. You can vote on or near the Island on Saturday, March 26, from 11:00am-2:00pm (during the RIRA Easter Egg Hunt) at 20 River Road (Manhattan Park); Tuesday, March 29, from 4:00-7:00pm at the Island F subway station; Wednesday, March 30, from 4:00-7:00pm at Tramway Plaza (Manhattan side); or Thursday, March 31, from 7:30-10:30am at PS/IS 217. Voting is open through Sunday, April 3. Please vote and show the elected officials that Roosevelt Island has a strong voice.

There are many ways to help the environment. Personal choices make a difference. Bring your own reusable shopping bag to the Wengerd Farmer’s Market, Gristedes, Wholesome Factory, or Duane­Reade to cut down on the use of the plastic bags that end up in our parks and on our beaches. Small steps feel good and are surprisingly easy.

To learn more about iDig2Learn, visit . Stay connected to iDig2Learn on Instagram and Twitter by following .

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