NORWALK, Conn. -- Wall Streeters are typically tasked with growing hedge funds, but this former financial sales hotshot has been growing something much more valuable in Norwalk’s public schools.
Lisa Lenskold, a Wall Street executive turned horticulturist, is the director of Norwalk Grows, an educational program that she launched three years ago in collaboration with the Norwalk Children’s Foundation (NCF).
In her work with Norwalk Grows, Lenskold has installed fully operational gardens in 12 of Norwalk Public Schools,and while that may seem a daunting task to some, Lenskold considers that just the beginning.
Lenskold says that she and NCF started Norwalk Grows to promote the overall health and wellness of students in Norwalk Public Schools. “Similar to most of the country, Norwalk has a very high level of childhood obesity,” she explained. “The school gardens transform the culture of food at the schools. The U.S. food system is hurting, and until consumers truly understand what is in the food they consume each day, our food system will not improve. For kids, teaching them the importance of knowing where their food comes from is a very interesting concept for them. It empowers them to start asking questions, and begin to make the right food choices.”
After spending the first two years of the program installing the 12 gardens, Lenskold began working with the schools to develop garden-based programs that enhance the educational curriculum in the elementary schools. This is notably demonstrated in the fourth grade Youth Farmer’s Market Program that engages all fourth grade students throughout the entire school year.
“Students visit the garden for science activities and math lessons that use data gathered by students. The students maintain the garden throughout the season, harvest the crops, and run four farmers markets during the school year. This year we’ve added a visit to the Bartlett Arboretum to learn about the collapse of bee colonies in conjunction with their endangered species curriculum,” Lenskold said.
The program is not limited to elementary school students. At the high school level, Norwalk Grows has been working with the Cafe Club at Norwalk High School to open a sustainable after school cafe for the students that will provide a healthy alternative for after school snacking. Most of the produce will be grown in their school garden to keep costs down and keep food quality at the highest level.
Lenskold says, “This project has truly been a collaboration of students, NHS staff, Norwalk Public School administration, community funders and partners such as Norwalk Children's Foundation and Pepperidge Farm, as well as Norwalk Grows. We expect the NHS Cafe will be opening within the next two months.”
While the program has been lauded by both administration and the community, it has not been without its challenges. They’ve felt the effects of budget cuts but have moved forward with the help of community partners. “Our primary funder has been Norwalk Children's Foundation, and we have continued to collaborate with other community partners via NCF. We have also received generous funding and volunteer support from such local companies such as GE, Pepperidge Farm, Factset, Tauck World of Giving, Norwalk Hospital, and Whole Foods.”
Lenskold doesn’t see an end to the many ways that Norwalk Grows can impact students and the community. She says that the organization is in discussions with Community Plates about partnering to educate children on social issues that address hunger and food justice with a new program called Norwalk Grows Gleanings. Lenskold says that she’s excited to educate and empower youth into taking on social issues through school gardening.
Other innovative projects that she’s working on include partnering with GreenUp in Stamford on the installation of an indoor hydroponic garden at Jefferson Science Magnet school in the next few weeks.
Clearly excited about the work she’s doing, Lenskold sees the impact that she’s having on the kids in both large and small ways.
She says, “I had a student whose mom told me she absolutely never eats vegetables. But last summer, as part of the fourth grade program, she planted a bed of carrot seeds and when school resumed in the fall, harvested the carrots. At the Youth Farmers Market, she bought a bag of those carrots to try with her family. Her mom let me know how much she loved eating the carrots and could not stop talking about sowing the seeds and the full experience. To me, that's how we begin to change the culture of food in Norwalk - through the kids, who bring home their knowledge and excitement to their families!”
Ann Quasarano is a Westport-based freelance writer and the author Fairfieldista.