By MARTHA SMITH
Special to the Standard
EXETER – What started three years ago as a green initiative funded by a federal stimulus grant has turned into a major teaching tool – as well as a source of inspiration in the kitchen – for culinary arts students at the Exeter Job Corps Academy.
A rapidly-expanding herb and vegetable garden is being tended by 35 students, some of whom also participate in an after-hours program tending trees, container plantings and ornamental beds throughout the campus. Those active in the latter activity receive credit for 40 hours of leadership and 40 hours of community service.
For a number of them who come from inner-city areas, growing food is a completely new experience.
Linda Soderberg, deputy director of the Exeter center, says the modest horticultural efforts were ratcheted up significantly when Audrey Pincins was hired as an admission and career transition clerk. After she came on board, officials discovered she’s a Master Gardener. Not only that: she’s also the owner of a private landscaping company based in Tefft Hill, South Kingstown.
“My husband travels in the military,” says Pincins. “I took over the landscaping, I was good at it and I learned.” Now she’s sharing her knowledge.
After she finishes her regular job, Pincins dons gardening clothes, distributes the tools she’s brought from home to the students to use and takes on her second, volunteer role: Mrs. Greenjeans.
“She’s brought a whole new level of capability, quality and instruction to the students and the programming,” proclaims Soderberg. “She’s been a wonderful addition.”
She adds that, after starting with four little lumber-bordered beds, “This fall we’ll plant fruit trees; we’re hoping to partner with [URI’s] East Farm.” She’s delighted that the garden experiment has widened to include students in the construction program who’ve built the bed borders, a picnic table and repaired an arbor which Soderberg hopes can be expanded into a meditation area.
A composting program is planned, part of what she envisions as “bigger and better things” including a mini-greenhouse. Moreover, the NK Chamber of Commerce has asked for staff support for a planned Wickford farmers’ market and advanced culinary students will be taking on that assignment, getting them involved in the community as well as the burgeoning local food-production industry.
On a recent sunny afternoon, four students have emerged from the kitchen to explain what they’ve learned so far and what they hope to achieve. The quartet comprises Nichole Goguen, of Woonsocket; Jacob Graham, of Australia; Angelia Beaufort, of Middletown; and Madison Harlacher of Norwich, Conn.
Appearing to be a natural green-thumb, Angelia says she “brought some ideas” to the Job Corps growing adventure from the garden she tended in high school. For instance, she and Madison created a non-toxic repellent to discourage the deer and rabbits who believe the students have planted a salad bar just for them.
Angelia describes the “international garden” that features herbs including sage, cilantro, several types of parsley, thyme, lime basil, fennel, oregano and chamomile; among the vegetables are three types of peppers, including jalapenos, eggplant, tomatoes, lettuce, carrots, green beans, squash and beets.
Pincins is teaching them square-foot gardening – how to maximize limited space by training such plants as cucumber vines to grow up instead of out – but is best known for metaphorically comparing the goings-on in a garden to life events.
For instance, she says, mint is a bully that will take over a garden and, like real-life bullies has to be controlled; in the Job Corps garden, the mint was planted in a pot where it is confined.
Suddenly, Nichole begins to quote their mentor: “Audrey says we come here to get a new start in life and planting a garden is a new start, too.”
Jacob, who claims he dug “most of the holes” for the garden’s plants, is contributing to the notion that gardens can have a sense of fun by making an “Australian scarecrow.” He says it will be “a surfer dude.”
Nichole says they’re not only learning about plants; they’re learning about survival, too. She personally has endured “bug bites, sunburns and [an attack] by ants. It’s been interesting though.”
Among the biggest fans of the garden program because he sees it contributing to morale as well as menu is Chef Santos Nieves. He says of those who are initially reluctant, “Once they get dirty, they really enjoy it.”
When the vegetables start coming in, he notes, “We will utilize a lot [of the produce] and plan meals based on available herbs. We’re planning to use sage with pork roast.”
A big part of the Job Corps philosophy is acquiring pride in your work through ownership of what you create. “The garden helps,” says Nieves, who believes the grittiness of garden work defines the sweat equity the Job Corps espouses. “We see positive changes.
“When you feel good about what you do, it’s a stepping stone.”
Martha Smith is an award-winning journalist and author. Retired, she is an independent contractor for SRIN.