Henry Got Crops! program yields White House award for Saul High teacher

When Jessica McAtamney recently found an email from the White House in her inbox, she thought it was a joke.

“I put it in the trash because Obama emails me every day,” McAtamney said.

The message wasn’t a hoax, though. It was, in fact, a very real message informing her that she was to be nationally recognized for the sustainability efforts she leads at a Philadelphia public high school.

McAtamney, an agricultural teacher at W.B. Saul High School of Agricultural Sciences, is being honored in Washington on Tuesday for her efforts in establishing a school-based recycling initiative and a community supported agriculture program.

The White House Office of Public Engagement and the U.S. Department of Agriculture will recognize McAtamney as part of The White House Champions of Change program, which recognizes individuals behind “projects and initiatives that move their communities forward.”

“It’s humbling,” said McAtamney of the national recognition. “There’s a lot of time and a lot of effort and a lot of hair-pulling that goes into any process when you’re in a system like a school.

“For somebody to recognize kids, who are typically not viewed as doing anything positive, for the programming that they’re involved in is pretty neat.”

As an outgrowth of her Agro-Ecology curriculum, McAtamney spearheaded a school-wide recycling program. Her students educate their classmates and staff on the activity’s importance and round up the recyclable materials left in classrooms each week.

Farming with a purpose

Four years ago, McAtamney helped start “Henry Got Crops!” at Saul’s campus in the city’s Roxborough section.

On a 2.5-acre farm along Henry Avenue, students are exposed to sustainable urban-farming and healthy eating options as they help plant and harvest a variety of crops.

The program – a joint venture among Saul, Weavers Way Co-op and Fairmount Park – then offers up the locally grown, chemical-free vegetables to the larger community, who can receive weekly portions of the farm’s yield for a yearly fee.

Nicole Berryman of Weavers Way Farms has worked closely with McAtamney over the years as a manager and educator at the farm. She said McAtamney truly deserves the award.

“I’m not at all surprised by this because Ms. McAtamney is such an outstanding teacher,” Berryman said. “She pours her heart and soul into all the projects she initiates at Saul. She has limitless energy and dedication.”

Over the years, membership in the Henry Got Crops! co-op has grown from 80 to 140 families.

Two weeks ago, students helped plant the program’s first orchard. It’s hoped that the expansion will boost membership down the road and help the initiative turn a profit for the first time.

In 2011, Henry Got Crops broke even for the first time. Profits would be split between Saul and Weavers Way.

The program has also applied to be an official food vendor at Saul. If the School District approves, vegetables will be available in the school’s cafeteria in 2013.

“It’s everybody contributing and that’s why it’s so unique and so special,” said McAtamney of the program. “Community partnerships are hard to facilitate, but they’re happening at Saul.”

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