Beneficiaries of child health program gather at Phillies Bridge Farm for a graduation of sorts

Phillies Bridge Farm hosts a colorful flower garden.

A simple recipe for fun: take one open, grassy field and add children. No matter their background, no matter the level of direction, children in a field will nearly always revert to running and laughing. Perhaps they are attuned to the energies of the Earth in a way that most adults have long since tuned out, or perhaps it’s just really, really fun. Running around is precisely what the many young children gathered at Phillies Bridge Farm Project choose to do whenever they get the chance, their infectious peals of laughter echoing over the nearby crops and tables, groaning with food freshly-prepared from that same produce.

The occasion last Thursday was a graduation ceremony of sorts, although in this case the graduates are actually starting school in September, rather than completing it. The beginning of school — either kindergarten for five-year-olds, or a Head Start program for those as young as three — is when children in the Ulster County Healthy Families program and their families transition to other forms of support. The most important eligibility criterion to begin the program is pregnancy, or a child at home that’s three months old or younger. The service is provided through the Institute for Family Health, with support from state funding. This is the 13th year that the ceremony has been conducted at Phillies Bridge, giving participants the opportunity to visit the source of much of the fresh produce they receive that was grown on this very land. Together with parents and siblings, 115 people were expected, many of whom were bused in from Kingston, where some 40% of these families live. As to the precise number, Phillies Bridge Education Director Jasmine Wood observed that counting people is as difficult as counting chickens.

Cherry tomatoes are in abundance at Phillies Bridge farm last week.

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This is what food justice looks like: not just the feeding of people who do not have enough to eat, which is part of the larger concept, but addressing issues of nutrition and education around food preparation, healthy choices, and what food looks like if it’s not extruded, mechanically separated and transformed into shapes and colors never found in nature. Food justice has always been part of the mission of the Phillies Bridge Farm Project, and the Healthy Families graduation is a giggling, tree-climbing reminder of how important that mission is. Five large shares from the community-supported agriculture part of this nonprofit farm were donated to the program, thanks to some individual donations, a grant from the Community Foundations of the Hudson Valley and a share contributed by the New Paltz monthly meeting of the Religious Society of Friends, which is the formal name of the Quaker congregation on North Manheim Boulevard in New Paltz’s village.

Farm to Families, a program through which the food justice mission is implemented, is neither the only way that food assistance is delivered, nor is it the only way communities of faith participant. Donations and grants fund other efforts, such as subsidized CSA shares which can be provided to families at a reduced cost, and scholarships for a session of summer camp.

“We’re not the only program that receives free shares,” agreed Healthy Families’ Doug Keller. In the past year, the produce was distributed among 255 participating families, which range in size from just two — a parent and child — to as many as nine people which benefit from the fresh food.

During the last holiday season, members of the Lutheran Church in New Paltz made and sold ornaments to raise funds for the Phillies Bridge food justice cause and resulted in more than $1,300 being donated to the farm. Church members have also been known to organize other fundraisers, and sometimes show up at the farm with large amounts of home-cooked food to share.

Education is an integral part of food justice at Phillies Bridge. It begins with familiarizing children who attend camp, visit on field trips, or participate in programs for home-schooled children with where food comes from, and how that ties into lessons about biology, agriculture and cooking. Getting children involved in recipe preparation, explained Wood, increases the chances that they will eat what’s being prepared. That’s exactly what she and her staff did this day: families were taken to the fields to help harvest the very vegetables which they later helped turn into a sumptuous feast.

Last week guests at Phillies Bridge Farm were treated to lunch made from the harvest.

Food preparation is also important for adults. Healthy Families participants get home visits — weekly for newborns, with the frequency decreasing to monthly — to provide support and see if the children are hitting expected developmental milestones. Thanks to training provided by Wood, visitors are also able to demonstrate specific recipes, which can make all the difference when there’s an unfamiliar vegetable in the mix.

“They’re not big on the greens,” said Raka Gulati, who picks up the donated produce every Tuesday, “but they love the carrots, onions, tomatoes and zucchini.”

Guiding her group around the farm, Wood explains how vegetables of different colors contain different nutrients, giving rise to the “rainbow diet.” She shows children how rolling a sage leaf between the fingers brings out the aromatic oils, and lists ways that the various herbs grown on the farm can be used in cooking.

“The taste of fresh food is different,” said Sharley McIver, and as someone who grew up on processed foods herself she knows that the transition can be a challenge. However, “the Phillies Bridge staff are really good at education and provide us with recipes” to share.

Regine McDowell has been in the program for just ten months with her child, Kayzelle. McDowell is no stranger to food from the ground: she has a garden plot near home, and participates in the YMCA farm project. “It helps stretch the budget,” she said, and it’s had a definite impact on Kayzelle, who “won’t eat canned baby food anymore.”

Geneva May said that she’s grateful to live in the Hudson Valley, where she has access to farms. “Who knew there were edible flowers?” she marveled as she accompanied a group of families with which she also visits. Having recently secured her first apartment, May said that she’s learning as much about nutrition and healthy eating as the people she visits as part of the job.

“The farm is gorgeous!” proclaims Christopher Lapinel, bouncing baby Joaquin in one arm. He and his wife Rita agreed that visiting Phillies Bridge is valuable because it’s a “touchstone” to connect with the source of food. He could not praise the overall Healthy Families program enough; lacking nearby relatives, they have come to rely on the support they receive through the regular visits, he said. “We’re so disconnected from this part of life,” he said, gesturing to the fields all around them.

Graduates of the program, in addition to a meal that they helped prepare, received certificates, copies of the recipes themselves and all the pick-your-own tomatoes they could carry. For more information on food justice programs at the Phillies Bridge Farm Project, or to make a donation, visit philliesbridge.org.

In the pick-your-own tomato patch at Phillies Bridge Farm.

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