Sustainability on menu: HEC Academy in Northampton recognized for garden, other ‘green’ efforts

Home E CES Stories E Sustainability on menu: HEC Academy in Northampton recognized for garden, other ‘green’ efforts
Article Author: Alexander MacDougall
Publication Name: Hampshire Daily Gazette
Article Date: 6/4/2024
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In a small outdoor corridor wrapping around the school building of HEC Academy lies a garden, with various patches of land and small pots sprouting vegetation such as squash, pumpkins and zucchini. Around half a dozen students help maintain the garden, keeping it properly watered and making sure that anything that needs to be tossed out is composted.

“My mom’s a landscaper, so I feel like it’s kind of in my blood a little bit,” said Jesse Garrido, 17, as she helped pull weeds out of a vegetable patch. “I do like getting in the dirt.”

The seeds of these vegetables were planted by the students of HEC Academy, a school for high school-age youths with social-emotional challenges or learning disabilities that have caused difficulties within the standard structure of public high school. The school is run by the nonprofit The Collaborative for Educational Services, and takes its name for the organization’s previous name, the Hampshire Educational Collaborative.

The school usually has between 25 and 30 students who live within an hour of HEC’s Northampton location, according to Amy Stamm, the school’s special education coordinator.

“Basically it’s a small, therapeutic, special education high school,” Stamm said. “A lot of the kids have had trauma from past schools, and they land here, and it just is like, the first time they felt safe in years, because there’s really support every minute.”

Now, the school is doing more than providing students with an education in a comfortable space — it’s also allowing them to take the lead in improving the school’s environmental sustainability, and this spring those efforts have been recognized at the national and state levels with “green awards.”

The school’s sustainability efforts started two years ago with the disposable containers that the school’s lunches arrived in (it receives meals in partnership with Northampton Public Schools). HEC worked to change the lunches so that they come in reusable containers, then worked to make its cups and silverware reusable as well.

That quest for sustainability later expanded into creating the garden, which HEC began two years ago thanks to a grant from the food education nonprofit Pilot Light. In the garden, students get a chance to be outdoors, to plant their own vegetables, and to learn about best practices for growing your own food.

“We compost everything that can be composted instead of throwing it out,” said Veronica Dos Reis, 16, one of the students who helps work the garden. “It’s just a lot more sustainable and you can get better produce growing it yourself than you can get anywhere else.”

Beyond simply growing food, students also learn how to cook with their fresh vegetables in a class taught at the school. Students have used the produce they grow to prepare their own meals, whether making a pasta dish or simply washing a cucumber and chopping it into slices.

“I always think it tastes better when you grow it yourself,” Garrido said.

The students also have partnered with other nonprofits to make use of their food education skills. Students have volunteered with Manna Community Kitchen to help prepare and serve meals, and with Grow Food Northampton to receive additional food to use in the students’ cooking class.

Thanks to its garden, along with food educational programs and partnerships with local food growers, the school has become recognized, both by the state and the nation, as a leading school in environmental sustainability.

Earlier this month, HEC Academy was selected as one of 55 schools across the country by the U.S. Department of Education for its Green Ribbon award, given to schools that demonstrate reduced environmental impact, improved wellness and sustainability education.

The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection also recognized the sustainability efforts of the school, awarding it the grand prize in its Green Team Awards, “or outstanding environmental stewardship and educational activities.”

Stamm said the school would continue to focus on sustainability efforts, such as installing solar panels on the school building and recently replacing its florescent bulbs with LED ones.

But while those changes are happening, the students’ garden will continue to grow.

“This will be our third summer with the garden,” Stamm said. “And they [the students] are trying to figure out which places have the most sun and what things grow best at different places.”

For Garrido, the volunteer work done by the students is what HEC Academy is all about.

“It really just shows and helps represent us as a school,” she said. “It shows people that we’re doing a lot of stuff that we don’t have to be doing, but we’re doing it because we want to.”

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