The sap was flowing on Tufts University’s campus in late January, where more than a hundred people gathered for Groundwork Somerville’s first tree tapping of the year.
Children took turns slowly drilling into the trees, hammering small spiles into the bark, and tasting droplets of sap, while program leaders explained how to identify and tap sugar maples.
The event was part of the Maple Syrup Project, a spring-long program run by Groundwork Somerville. The local non-profit works to improve local communities by helping residents engage with their environment, and is associated with the larger Groundwork network.
“What we’re hoping to do is provide a fun way for community members to connect with the environment, and connect to each other at the same time,” Deputy Director Jess Bloomer says.
Groundwork Somerville took up the Maple Syrup Project about 15 years ago as a way to promote natural spaces during the cold winter months, Bloomer says. The project is a collaborative effort by Groundwork, Tufts, the Somerville Community Growing Center, and local elementary schools.
Over February and into March, the Maple Syrup Project collects about 200 gallons of raw sap, which is kept frozen at the Somerville Homeless Coalition’s Project SOUP pantry, according to Bloomer.
The project involves several events, including a Maple Brunch at the Independent in February and a Sap on Tap event at Aeronaut Brewing Company on April 14. The core of the project, however, is educational—each year, about 20 to 25 Groundwork volunteers visit second grade classrooms throughout the city and introduce students to maple sugaring through what Bloomer calls “place-based learning.”
“There’s big value in understanding and connecting to the places that we live,” Bloomer says. “We’re proud of the fact that we have kids in our school district whose families have been here for multiple generations, and also kids whose parents have just arrived from various other countries.”
Learning about maple sugaring can be a “unifying force” for these students, she adds: “They can take part in something [that’s] been happening in this part of the country for hundreds of years.”
Students in each class receive four to five hours of education on maple sugaring approached through various subjects areas, like learning about ratios through syrup-related facts and writing “sappy” poems.
The project culminates in an annual Boil Down, where volunteers and all 200 participating second graders help convert the sap to homemade syrup. This year’s Boil Down, which is free and open to the community, is scheduled for March 16.
In order to create syrup, 97 percent of the liquid must be boiled away, according to Bloomer, so about five gallons of syrup come out of the boil down. Most of it is given to community sponsors as gifts, or used in community events for children.
The Maple Syrup Project is just one of Groundwork Somerville’s many programs for supporting the community and the environment. The organization’s flagship program, the Green Team, provides high schoolers with an opportunity to develop leadership skills through projects in urban agriculture and environmental justice, according to Bloomer. The summer program recruits local teens to learn about food systems, as well as gain hands-on skills in farming and landscaping.
“For many of these kids, it’s their first job,” Bloomer says.
The Green Team also helps to produce about 2,000 pounds of produce annually, which, along with food from other local farms, is distributed to underserved residents through the organization’s Mobile Farmers Market. The mobile market is a van that brings subsidized fruits and vegetables to communities that lack easy access to a supermarket or areas where many individuals rely on SNAP or EBT benefits, Bloomer says. About half the available produce consists of foreign crops that have been requested by local immigrant communities, such as the Haitian Lalo plant.
“It’s really important to us that we’re increasing food access in our city, especially to vulnerable communities,” Bloomer says.
Groundwork also maintains and hosts programing in schoolyard gardens at 10 schools within the city, where volunteers host lessons on health and wellness through cooking and gardening, according to Community Engagement Coordinator Casey Merkle.