WILTON — For its work in reducing environmental impact, improving health and wellness, and offering effective environmental and sustainability education, Middlebrook School has been named a Green Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education. It is one of 39 schools nationwide and the only school in Connecticut to receive this recognition, which was announced on Earth Day, April 22.

Schools that receive this designation have been nominated by state education officials. Each year state educational agencies may nominate up to five early-learning through 12th-grade school or district candidates and one post-secondary institution.

First introduced in 2012, the program has honored 459 schools, 87 school districts, and 49 post-secondary schools.

In announcing the award, the Department of Education said, “These honorees are ensuring that their students learn to live, work, and play with sustainability and health in mind — not as an afterthought, but as an integral part of everything they undertake.”

Middlebrook was identified as “a pioneer in the sustainability movement.” Working from the ground up over the last four years, the school adopted a “growing green” initiative that focused on making the cafeteria more environmentally friendly and teaching children how to grow, make and eat healthy and sustainable foods.

Leading the movement has been culinary arts teacher Heather Priest who said, “It’s been a very long road. We really did this from the grassroots.” Support was difficult to come by at first, she said, because there weren’t any other programs to compare to or build on.

Support did come in the form of Tammy Thornton a parent volunteer “who grabbed the reins and gave me inspiration when I started to feel that this was never going to happen,” Priest said. Thornton is now president of Wilton Go Green, which partners with the school on many projects.

Priest also gave credit to district administrators for their support.

“Honestly, three years ago when I asked [Superintendent of Schools] Kevin Smith for $4,000 to pay for compost I thought for sure he’d say no. But he didn’t,” she said.

The school also joined Connecticut Green LEAF Schools and investigated where it was lacking in environmental and sustainability efforts. As a result, Priest now teaches a sixth-grade Family and Consumer Science class, and a 3,000-square-foot garden and 600-square-foot greenhouse — complete with rain barrels for water conservation — were installed to grow a variety of vegetables.

“What spurred me initially was the amount of food waste in my own program,” said Priest, who has been teaching in Wilton for seven years.

“We didn’t have a garden when I first started. … The eighth-grade culinary curriculum was designed around healthy and sustainable meals — whole grins, lean proteins, how do you make a vegetable a meal.

“The sixth graders are my farmers,” she added. “It’s killing me right now not to do my planting.”

For the past four years, with a sixth-grade curriculum based on sustainability, students harvest in the fall what the previous sixth graders planted in the spring.

“It’s all built on a model that every quarter pays it forward and you eat what’s in season,” she said, as students learn about the environmental impact of importing out-of-season produce.

Priest’s favorite part of the initiative is the composting and recycling that makes up the Zero Waste Schools program, begun in 2017. In partnership with nonprofit Wilton Go Green and school lunch provider Chartwells Food Service, and with a slogan of “Warriors Won’t Waste,” the Zero Waste Schools program is designed to significantly reduce the amount of waste — primarily from cafeterias — that would otherwise be sent to landfills or for incineration.

Highly successful, it has led to a dramatic reduction in food waste — as much as 2,000 pounds per week, according to the award announcement. Collected food waste is brought to a facility where it is turned into compost.

The students most enjoy activities related to nature, Priest said, becoming motivated when they see a turtle with a straw in its nose or learning how plastics are choking the coral reefs.

“We have a few very competitive towns and when we bring up Weston being close behind in recycling, it gives them a kick in the pants to get motivated and do better,” she said.

A highlight of the program is the Zero Waste Week held once in the fall and once in the spring. The spring week fell victim to the school closures prompted by the coronavirus pandemic.

“This hit us at the worst moment ever,” she said. “We were just about the have Zero Waste Week for Earth Day and we were just about to celebrate with the Zero Waste Faire.”

Priest is hoping in the fall “we can do a rebirth of the program,” and gain back any of the ground that may have been lost.

“Right now I feel the use of one-use plastics has increased monumentally because of the current situation. We are going to have to assess people’s level of fear with bringing back single-use plastics into school and figure out what the state is going to do with recycling.” That was already on a downswing, she said, with hauling and carting companies taking things off their list of acceptable recyclables due to a downturn in the market.

The school’s Green Team was also hoping to install a dishwasher to allow for the use of reusable trays and flatware.

“Going forward I’m so scared people are going to forget how important this is,” she said. “Once we get back in the world we have to remember we gave our environment a rest for about six weeks. We have to keep thinking about what we’re doing to the planet.”