CAMBRIDGE — It sounds like summer camp: supervised activities for about four dozen kids, four mornings a week, for four weeks. But it’s not, and not only because at the end of these four weeks, instead of tuition coming due, every camper is paid $100. Except, don’t call them campers; they’re interns.
This is the summer program of City Sprouts, a Cambridge nonprofit that maintains vegetable gardens for educational purposes at a bunch of city schools year round, but deploys them in summer to connect urban 11- to 14-year-olds to food — growing it, cooking it, shopping for it, and more.
In addition to crops the interns harvest, they receive produce from City Sprouts school gardens elsewhere in Cambridge. Those gardens are maintained during off-school months by members of the three-adult teams that lead each City Sprouts cadre through twin summer sessions. Each has a gardening coordinator, a summer fellow, and a volunteer community member.
City Sprouts was cofounded a dozen years ago by Jane Hirschi, the Cambridge mother of a pre-schooler who was invited to participate in a food-and-gardening activity. She was shocked that many children were unfamiliar with basic fruits of the garden such as apples, tomatoes, even lettuce. “My first inkling of City Sprouts was wanting to give kids an experience of tasting foods, putting their hands in the dirt, knowing where food was coming from,” says Hirschi, 51, who worked with another parent, teachers, and a school principal at the beginning, and is now its executive director.
Since 2000, thousands of Cambridge schoolchildren have come through one of the gardens, which are used by teachers when it fits their curriculum, and more than 300 have attended the summer program, which started about five years ago.
Anderson Guichette, 12, has no illusions that the program is not just fun and games, but he valued his experience enough last summer to reenlist. “Eating healthy is something big,” he says. “I learn to make new foods, learn new games, to harvest stuff, and how to name new vegetables and fruits.”
Guichette says he tended toward a food-and-sustainability outlook before coming to City Sprouts, but the experience has influenced him further. He recalls a lesson last year where interns were shown the ingredients of a McDonald’s strawberry smoothie, and strawberries weren’t on the list. “I don’t go to McDonald’s, or Burger King. I just make it at home,” he says.
His favorite recipe, which he also makes, is pesto. Its chief ingredient enjoys broad popularity on a Tuesday morning as the dozen or so interns fan out for a harvesting raid. Basil’s aromatics pervade the radiating concrete plaza of the Tobin School, where most of the growing transpires in raised beds: okra, cucumbers, eggplant, beans, Swiss chard, and more. Just off the plaza, apricots, peaches, and a few other crops grow at ground level.
In addition to growing, most mornings include a game, cooking and other instructional segments, and a snack. Today it’s coleslaw.
“I can taste the peppers!” says Samantha Kieser, 11, after summer fellow Megan Porter serves up portions made with cabbage harvested the previous day. Sophie Burnieika, 13, is looking for the recipe. Porter, one of four fellows chosen from 50 applicants, runs it down, adding that the carrots are store-bought, but the next batch may use the garden’s own.
To stoke the interns’ native zeal, the program mimics camp in another way, intramural competition. Interns vie not only against each other, but among the four City Sprouts sites. Points are awarded for trying, and finishing, dishes; for taking produce home; for bringing back dishes cooked and/or assembled at home from garden produce.
This morning’s teaching component, a “supermarket snoop,” begins with the three-block walk to the Fresh Pond Whole Foods, where three teams will compare the costs and challenges of assembling a pasta dinner for a family of four.
One group concentrates on processed foods, one emphasizes local over organic, and one organic over local.
After 20 minutes of prowling the aisles, they reconvene to compare numbers of ingredients, which range from 17 to 90; most unusual ingredient encountered (guar gum, pectin, and other inscrutables); average cost per person; and other details. Perhaps not surprisingly, the locavores have the easiest go because they are allowed to use what they grow.
To Porter, who is entering her senior year at Smith College, what makes the program sing is how the different disciplines harmonize. “Because it’s gardening combined with cooking, there’s a lot of activity that reaches different personality and learning styles.”
Kellyn Shoecraft, 29, of Medford is in her second year as a gardening coordinator. She’s impressed by the pull of cooking as a gateway activity: For many interns, “cooking with the foods that we grow feeds their desire to be more invested in the actual gardening process.”
With mirth, she relates a story from the previous day involving Guichette: A small patch needed planting, and with the supply of basil quite secure, she offered him the chance to plant whatever he wanted. What did he choose?
More basil, of course.