Emilio Panasci has a passion for growing plants and communities. He has been working with community gardens and farmers market projects for eight years, and about three years ago, he, along with East Orange YMCA, began to build a community garden and to initiate garden and food programming. The city of East Orange, New Jersey, also partnered with the YMCA and the local farmers market.
Their philosophy: people learn to grow their own food with gardens and students can visit and learn gardening basics. They are creating food access by creating food markets. Many projects are based on building these new markets and helping small farmers put themselves out there to the urban community.
During the summers Emilio teaches at the YMCA and develops special programs. He connected with SFG Certified Instructor Bob Markey through the YMCA alliance network in New Jersey. Emilio says, “Once we learned what Square Foot Gardening is, we thought it would be the perfect fit for our new garden and curriculum and a way to approach the YMCA campers.”
The first year of operation was 2017. Emilio became certified and SFG was made a part of the summer camp experience. This past summer in 2018, they refined their program a bit more as they now had more experience and knew what to expect. And the program expanded! Another young counselor who had prior gardening experience was hired to assist.
“We have used Square Foot Gardening with about 200 urban summer campers each summer,” Emilio says. They come to the garden two times per week, for 45 minutes each session, for 8 weeks. The campers get into everything, from the basic Square Foot Gardening principles to harvesting to tasting to garden art.” And the kids learned a lot.
This is an urban area with little green space. Children do live in homes, but they don’t all have access to backyards and open spaces. At the start, many of the kids are a little timid; vegetables, plants, and bees and even outdoor settings are new for them. Generally, just being outside and bugs are problems.
But the kids’ attitudes have changed toward food. They’re much more likely to try new things after they’ve participated in the program for a year. The teachers also noticed from summer to summer that repeat students retain a lot of their outdoor knowledge. They help the newer students not to be afraid of things, and they ask questions that are more advanced from the previous year. Campers seem to be calmer when they are outside too. Emilio and the other instructors help the kids establish a comfort level with being outside in the garden, and with plants and the ecosystem specifically. A secondary benefit to the program is that it helps kids understand healthy food choices. And they’re really happy the program does that.
The Square Foot Gardening program ties well into other things going on at the YMCA as well. For example, there’s a hydroponics program in winter. The Y has various partners, and they give cooking demonstrations and teach healthy lifestyles. Teaching the SFG method is a good resource to show campers how produce comes from farm to table. The instructors bring the kids out to the farmers’ market to see how food is sold and visit the produce stands to see the cultural aspects of growing food too.
Emilio says that the, “Square Foot Gardening method works with new gardeners. I don’t have a horticultural background, and a lot of people who are working with students could be all over the place with what they know and don’t know. Even [though we have] instructors with Master Gardener training, it is most useful for the teacher to have a guidelines. … How do you approach it? How do you boil down the information? How do you make gardening a fun game for kids and keep their perspective in mind?”
Emilio gravitated toward the SFG method because of its simplicity and geometry. And, no matter where new teachers come from, they can pick up the curriculum. Even if one doesn’t always say exactly the right thing, an instructor will be on the same page with the students by following the method. Its strength is in the beginner side of it. Plus, there’s enough flexibility so you can do something different if you need it. For example, one week the campers can study compost, including an examination of worms and learning the background of composting.
Emilio works with Bob Markey, who provides a weekly overview and readings and notes where each location should be in the garden. This works well because three different YMCAs teach the method on similar timelines of an 8- to 9-week course.
Together, they’re making a difference in the lives of many children around New Jersey!