At last week’s Slow Food jamboree in Turin, Italy, I met 15-year-old Sam Levin. At the event’s opening ceremony, Sam delivered a speech about Project Sprout, a program he co-founded at Monument High School in Great Barrington, Mass.
“The plan was simple,” Sam explained to the attendees who packed Turin’s Olympic Stadium. “Create a student-run organic vegetable garden on school grounds that would be used as an educational tool for students ages 3–18, provide delicious vegetables for the school lunches and ultimately build connections with nature for the children of our district.
“We will be the generation,” Sam continued, “that will reconcile people and the land.”
Sam’s speech was the talk of the conference, earning him instant first-name status at an event with countless attendees, and a hero’s welcome wherever he went.
I caught up to Sam at Terra Madre, a series of panels and conferences in which 8,000 farmers, businesspeople, educators, students and activists discuss responsible, sustainable and fair food production practices. Our short interview was interrupted by hand-shakers and back-patters, all of whom Sam acknowledged calmly and with impressive P.R. chops. At one point, a pretty young girl danced around him, twirling like a ballerina. (I have video footage to prove it.)
“What inspired you to start Project Sprout?” I asked.
“My whole life I’ve loved the natural world, spending my free time in the woods and swamps,” he said. “Then, when I was 13 years old I was stuck in a small town with nothing to do. I wandered into a movie theater, and ended up in An Inconvenient Truth, which I’d never heard of. And there was Al Gore telling me that the thing I cared about more than anything else was quickly disappearing, and something had to be done about it. After that I was thinking about it all the time, thinking about what I could do. Then I read Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan. And then I read Edible Schoolyard by Alice Waters, which was the most amazing book I’d ever read. I realized it had to be done in my school and every other school in the world.”
Just over a year ago, Sam took his plan to create an edible schoolyard to his principal, and then the school board, which offered initial, if futile, resistance before finally agreeing. Sam and co-founders Sarah Steadman and Natalie Akers gathered supporters and advisors, spread the word, raised money and in the spring of this year planted a 3,500-square-foot trial garden. Next year’s garden will be triple that size, with the eventual “master plan” being a 27,000-square-foot garden that will provide food for all three schools in the district.
Toward the end of the Slow Food weekend I shared a Sicilian beef spleen sandwich with another celebrity attendee, Alice Waters. I asked her what the highlight of the event was for her.
“Certainly, it was hearing Sam speak with such conviction at such a young age,” she said. “So eloquent, so concerned, and positive.”
Waters said that the Edible Schoolyards project is her primary focus for the foreseeable future.
“One of the first things we did in the garden was build an oven,” she said of the Berkeley schoolyard that’s the focus of her book. “We made pizza, grilled peas in their pods, grilled corn. The connection between kitchen and garden is so important. I want the kids to run the kitchens in their schools.
“But the beautiful part is that we don’t have to struggle to understand this,” she continued. “It’s not like we’re reading a little red book, memorizing what we have to do. It’s inside of us. It’s part of us. Buying food locally, eating it seasonally. Eating with family and friends. This is something that makes us human. We have this huge longing to get back there. We just touch it a little bit, and we all go running.”
When I asked her about the problem that, outside of places like California and Italy, the growing season is almost perfectly out of synch with the school year, she was undaunted.
“We need to change the school calendar,” she said.
Sam and his partners, meanwhile, are making it work within the existing calendar, even in the cold climate of western Massachusetts, by finding ways to link it to the community even when school is out. More than 250 students and community members participated last summer in the garden, including a kindergarten class.
Sam had to leave Turin on Sunday, missing the final day of the conference. I assumed he had to get back home so he wouldn’t miss any school. I was half-right.
“I have to get back to the garden,” he said. “We’re putting in a fruit orchard.”
Ask Ari: Dainty ducks
Q: Dear Flash,
Like you, I’ve got a friend who likes to hunt birds and has given me some ducks. What should I do with them?
A: The problem with ducks is that they’re so small. It takes as long to clean them as a larger bird, and you get hardly any meat. I’d recommend you politely ask your friend to shoot larger birds.
In the meantime, a lot of people will just cut the skin off around the breast, carefully cut the breast meat out and toss the rest. If done right, it yields about half a pound of flesh per bird—a pitifully small amount of meat for the taking of a life, if you ask me.
If I have the time, I skin the duck, gut it and save the liver and heart to be fried up with bacon, shallots (or onions) and port. When saving the liver, carefully cut away the bright blue sack of bile.
After you skin and clean it, let the duck soak in a strong salt solution (half a cup per gallon of water). This cleans it more and helps remove those gamey flavors (they don’t call them “flying livers” for nothing).
If you skin the whole bird, the best way to recover all those little chunks of meat is to make soup, or do a long slow braise so that the meat just falls off the bones by itself.
And most importantly: Chew that meat carefully! A careless chomp upon a piece of birdshot can send you straight to the dentist. By the same token, when you’re cleaning it, look for the telltale bits of blood on the meat. That spot of blood is probably sitting on a hole where the shot entered—and you can usually dig it out pretty easily with your fingers.
Send your food and garden queries to firstname.lastname@example.org.