January 26 — 9:44 pm, 2016

School’s harvest feeds students and families

At Saul agricultural high school, healthy food is at the core

scarlett santamaria and sabrayah english harvey finkle Harvey Finkle

The menu at Mitchell Valentin’s home recently included a salad with arugula.

For Malik Rodgers, it was stuffed peppers.

For Christopher Radford, it was a Crock-Pot with a variety of vegetables.

Besides their healthful eating, Valentin, Rodgers, and Radford had at least two things in common: They are students at W.B. Saul High School, one of the few urban agricultural high schools in the country.

And the vegetables they ate came from Saul’s campus, in the Roxborough section of Philadelphia.

“Anything I bring home, my mom uses,” said Valentin. In a few cases, he said, the vegetables were unfamiliar to her.

Saul’s main mission is preparing its students for careers – and usually college – through one of its four major academic programs: horticulture, food processing science, natural resource management, and animal sciences.

But the school has also played a key role in the School District’s efforts to get more locally grown produce into the food system, setting up healthy competition with processed foods that might have to be shipped in from states far away.

The Farm-to-School Program of the District’s Division of Food Services provides locally grown fruits and vegetables to all of its full-service kitchens through a “Harvest of the Month” program. While some are purchased from a produce distributor that works with farmers across the Delaware Valley,  part of the fruit and vegetable harvest now comes from Saul’s 130-acre campus, a sprawling, green break in the miles of small homes and apartments strung along Henry Avenue.

Tamera Conaway, in her fifth year as Saul’s principal, calls it “farm-to-cafeteria.”

Not that it’s a direct path. One can’t just plop an uninspected head of lettuce from a school greenhouse onto a student’s lunch plate.

Saul operates through Henry Got Crops, a community-supported agriculture model (CSA) comprising Saul, the Weavers Way Co-op, Weavers Way Community Programs, and Fairmount Park, which leases much of the farmland to the school.  

Henry Got Crops is certified as a vendor to the School District because it is staffed to perform health and safety inspections and ensure quality control.

Through Weavers Way and its outlets in Mount Airy and Chestnut Hill, the chemical-free produce also finds its way into kitchens and tables throughout Northwest Philadelphia. Each week, Saul students are given some to take home.

Jessica McAtamney, a natural resources teacher at the school, says that produce from the school “is changing behavioral patterns among the kids.”

Fresh vegetables are scarce in some urban neighborhoods, she said, and “it can be tough to get a working-class family to use them. It’s not easy to substitute kale chips for Doritos.”  

“They eat what they harvest,” said school food services director Sharon Handzus. “It’s more interesting for them than to have me try to introduce it.”

On the food line next to Handzus, food processing teacher Guy Amoroso was preparing to serve mashed turnips, close enough to mashed potatoes to be an easy sell to the students crowding the cafeteria on a recent lunch hour.

In addition to growing turnips, lettuce, arugula, and kale, the school produces blueberries with support from a farm-to-school grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The school expects to soon grow mushrooms under a grant provided through Seed Change, a program of the National Farm to School Network, which is funded by the Walmart Foundation.

Tilapia are also being raised in tanks as a student exercise, and the school hopes to eventually farm the fish commercially. Livestock is butchered in food science classes, but not sold locally as food.

Named for a supporter

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Originally called the Philadelphia High School of Agriculture & Horticulture, Saul was renamed in 1969 in honor of Walter Biddle Saul, a prominent local lawyer and former Board of Education president who had long been a supporter of agriculture programs in the schools.

Its enrollment of about 500 students is more than 60 percent African American and about 77 percent “economically disadvantaged” by the standards of federal school food assistance programs.

Saul is a special admission high school. Applicants need to have mostly As and Bs on their report cards, no negative disciplinary reports, and score in at least the 70th percentile on standardized tests.

Students come from throughout the city. Mitchell Valentin, for example, rides a bus up to two hours each way to the campus from his home in Northeast Philadelphia.

Student activities range from mucking horse stalls, bagging compost, and helping develop community gardens to learning the finer points of plant genetic codes. The graduation rate is more than 95 percent.

Onjané Johnson, a senior in the natural resource management track, praised the breadth of the curriculum, saying she entered Saul thinking of a career as a horticulturist, but is now looking more at environmental law.

Demian Rosales, whose family immigrated from Argentina when he was 3, said that he originally wanted to be a chef, but that his experience at Saul made him want to “move out to the countryside” in some agricultural occupation.

Rosales, also a senior, said his years at Saul have changed his meat-heavy family diet – traditional in Argentina – to a more balanced one, with vegetables from Henry Got Crops.

Valentin wants to study veterinary science at Penn State.

If he goes there, he will have plenty of company. More than 60 percent of Saul graduates go on to college, many to Penn State, Cornell, and others that offer agriculturally oriented programs.

But teacher McAtamney also cites the effect the school has beyond the campus and, hopefully, in the city itself.  

“In an urban area,” she says, “people tend to think of agriculture as ‘plows and sows.’ It’s a lot more than that.”  

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