A Food Education

educationAt P.S. 145 in Bushwick, lunch is served at 10:30 in the morning. Four hundred of the school’s 1,100 students pack the cafeteria—the rest will come later, in two more shifts—to be served a meal on a Styrofoam tray. What’s on the menu? A hamburger, tater tots, milk and a pear—plus red bean salad with rotini pasta, garlic, onions and olive oil.

The school is one of several in low income areas (where the incidence of obesity and diabetes tends to be higher) across the city that participate in the CookShop program, a hands-on curriculum developed by FoodChange, a 26-year-old New York City–based non-profit with a mission to promote nutrition, education and financial empowerment.

Each week, 11 kindergarten, first-, and second-grade teachers guide their students—many of whom are recent Central and South American immigrants—through lessons that focus on plant-based foods, including corn, carrots, bread, and salad. After exploring the food one week—through observation, discussion, and taste tests—children pre- pare and eat it the next. Take-home newsletters, available in English and Spanish, include a letter from a local farmer and information about the food of the week, including recipes, legends and lore, like, “Southerners have an old saying: ‘For every collard put in the pot, a new friend is made.’”

Teachers say it’s working.

“When I started [the program] I realized that my students really only knew what carrots and apples were,” says first-grade teacher Mary Greenan. “Now when they get back from the cafeteria they say ‘We had broccoli and cauliflower.’ They’re words they wouldn’t use before.” And they’re foods they wouldn’t eat.

Through a grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, FoodChange partners with four city agencies (the Department of Education, the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets, and the Office of SchoolFood) as well as Teachers College at Columbia University, to offer SchoolFood Plus, a program that encourages school cooks to prepare and serve original CookShop recipes. The goal is to improve the eating habits, health and academic performance of the young people within the reach of the New York City school meals program. About 100 schools participate.

“Right now, when you walk in the cafeteria you smell garlic and onions. It’s wonderful,” says P.S. 145 Parent Coordinator Evette Villafane. “The kids are actually eating their vegetables.”

David Berkowitz, executive director of the Office of SchoolFood (OSF), the agency charged with feeding the city’s more than one million public school students, says that in recent years school food has seen big improvements. It contains less fat and sodium than ever before, and artificial colors and sweeteners are off the menu. In addition, Berkowitz says the department is working on several important initiatives, including eliminating transfats and high-fructose corn syrup.

“Nutrition is at the core of what we do,” says Berkowitz, whose department serves 860,000 meals a day. In those meals, white bread and whole milk have been replaced by whole wheat and skim, and school cafeterias now serve more fresh fruits and vegetables, many of them locally grown. (Buying locally grown ingredients during the school year is tricky in our growing climate, where farmers have virtually nothing to harvest December through April, but apples store well, so SchoolFood serves New York–grown apples year-round.)

Despite OSF’s efforts, some say the glass is still pretty empty. “What I’m seeing kids eat looks a little bit healthier,” says Anna Allanbrook, principal of the Brooklyn New School, a public elementary school in Carroll Gardens. “I just don’t think it’s good enough.” According to Allanbrook, there are too many carbohydrates. And the presentation needs improvement: “Boiled vegetables are not particularly attractive.”

Larissa Phillips agrees. The mother of a BNS second-grader and the author of the “Feeding the Family” column on parenting.com, Phillips is one of the founding members of the BNS-BCS Food Committee, a grassroots organization created in partnership with the Brooklyn School for Collaborative Studies (the middle and high school with which BNS shares a building) to promote healthy eating habits.

Recent editions of the group’s newsletter, Chew On This, contain a list of healthy snack suggestions, easy oatmeal recipes, and an article about the state of school food in the BNS cafeteria. “Staff and money have been cut,” it reports, “so fresh eggs and fresh meat have been replaced with precooked eggs, pre-roasted chicken, pre-broiled hamburgers, and precooked ‘beef crumble,’ which is then reheated and seasoned.”

But instead of taking on the school-food bureaucracy (“It’s the second largest food system in the US. Only the military’s is bigger.”) Phillips has decided to focus her efforts on what she describes as “tangible” goals. One of them is to get kids into the kitchen.

On Thursdays, Phillips teaches “Cooking for Kids,” a two-hour class that’s part of the BNS after-school program. She selects recipes with an eye toward nutritional and cultural relevance, and sources ingredients, choosing organic and locally grown whenever possible.

Her students have made a wide array of dishes, like vegetable dumplings, whole wheat fettuccine with mushroom-thyme sauce, and tortillas with rice and beans. Under the tutelage of a guest chef—a parent volunteer—they prepared a traditional Jamaican meal of codfish fritters, fried plantains and ginger lemonade.

Many of her students have taken the class several times, says Phillips. (It’s offered each trimester; the $80 sliding-scale fee supports the school’s after-school programs.) And they’ve become much more adventurous in the kitchen, she reports. “They trust the food a little bit more now. They trust what we’re eating.” It wasn’t always so. After a raw chicken they were about to cook unleashed a chorus of discontent, Phillips was quick to institute a “No Eww!” policy.

In the spring, second graders will grow vegetables in pots, while first graders will participate in the 10-week “Seed to Salad” program at the nearby Red Hook Community Farm, a 2.75-acre urban farm operated by Added Value, a non-profit that serves several area schools.

Caroline Loomis, Added Value’s community education coordinator, says last year’s class planted many varieties of greens, including green leaf and butter crunch lettuce, arugula and lemon sorrel, which they “absolutely adore.”

On the last day the students held a salad party, and ate plate after plate of homegrown greens. Phillips’s son was in the class and had started out as a “non-salad eater.” But after tending to the crop and watching it grow, his taste began to change. “He came home one day and said, ‘I love spinach!’”

This is precisely the kind of metamorphosis that Phillips and the CookShop teachers at P.S. 145 hope to see more of in their schools. “I think that it’s a really humanly satisfying thing to do, to grow and to harvest—and then to cook and eat—your own food,” says Phillips.

Cecily Upton, the coordinator of Slow Food in Schools, a project created by the Brooklyn-based non-profit Slow Food USA to encourage food education, thinks these schools are on the right track. “If you can incorporate exposure to new foods,” she says, through cooking, gardening, and hands-on activities, “you’ll start to see changes in what kids eat.” One meal at a time, it’s happening in Brooklyn.

In Bushwick, Greenan sees the difference firsthand. “Wednesdays are [the students’] favorite days,” she says. “It’s when they do CookShop. It’s funny. I’m pushing vegetables, but it’s kind of working.”