When customers at Claire’s Corner Copia sample the restaurant’s uniquely delicious purple beans or the plump, heirloom Brandywine tomatoes, they might not expect that high school students could could grow such high-quality organic products.
But this summer, restaurant owner Claire Criscuolo plans on acquiring a large amount of organic produce from the agricultural projects developed by two New Haven high schools — Common Ground High School and The Sound School. These supplies will supplement the produce she harvests from her own backyard.
Oliver Barton, executive director of the New Haven Ecology Project — the nonprofit that founded Common Ground — said the school has been selling a small amount of produce to Claire’s for about five years now, and that both the school and Claire’s are dedicated to educating the public on the importance of agriculture and organic food.
“It’s a really positive relationship for both of us and valuable for students to see their food used in a restaurant setting,” Barton said. “They’re looking for some really high quality fresh local produce and we’re one way to get it.”
Criscuolo said she strongly believes children need to learn more about agriculture so they can be more aware of what they eat. She said she was amazed to find out how many young people were repulsed by digging through the dirt to harvest vegetables. Through education and programs such as those at Common Ground and the Sound School, she hopes more people will appreciate how hard it is to work and make a living as a farmer in Connecticut.
“We’re so disconnected from our farms we don’t realize what it takes,” Criscuolo said. “The world can’t be Wal-Mart.”
Common Ground High School grows organic produce on the school’s grounds near West Rock, and the Sound School utilizes greenhouse facilities in the city as well as farmland accessed through the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station. At each high school, between 30 and 40 students work on the agricultural projects during the school year through electives or science classes, while 15 to 20 participate in the program during the summer months in paid positions.
Chas Mavrelion, a teacher of agriculture and science at the Sound School, said the program has become more popular over the years as newer technologies, such as hydroponic farming — which allows the growth of vegetables without soil — are incorporated into the program.
“It increases in scope and sequence with the more you have to offer,” he said.
Although the Sound School has not worked with Claire’s in the past, it will begin selling organic food to the restaurant within the next few weeks.
In addition to selling organically-grown products to Claire’s, both schools provide food to other New Haven establishments, including the farmer’s market, soup kitchens, and the schools’ students. Additionally, the Sound School grows about 15,000 flowers every year for the mayor’s beautification program throughout the city.
Although most people in the Northeast are still hesitant to buy organic food products, Criscuolo said, it is extremely important for communities to support small, local farms.
“Someone who’s feeding their neighbors is going to take a much greater care in the community,” she said.
Criscuolo said during the 29 years Claire’s has been in operation, more customers come for the cuisine’s health benefits rather than the flavor of the food.
“People are more willing and eager to eat foods that are healthy. They are making an investment in their diets,” she said.
Jerold Mande, associate director for policy at the Yale Cancer Center and a regular Claire’s customer, said he thought the restaurant’s relationship with high schools sounded like a “great idea.” He said in today’s fast food culture and with fewer people growing up near farms it is important to teach children about what they eat.
“So many children are overweight and obese. A big reason for it is not being connected to what they eat,” Mande said.
As a board member of the Connecticut Restaurant Association, Criscuolo said she would one day like to see every restaurant buy from school agricultural programs like those of Common Ground and the Sound School.
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