No Eater Left Behind: Back-to-School Inspiration from Around the Nation

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As the school year begins, students across the nation are diving into a new extracurricular with zeal usually saved up for homecoming, and implications well beyond the classroom.

From kid-managed greenhouses to food activism in the lunch line, farm-to-table education has spiked in elementary, middle and high schools coast to coast. The fall issue of Edible East End features young gardeners on the cover, harvesting the bounty at their school’s greenhouse and garden, and leading our nation into a more hopeful food future. In some cases, students are growing, cooking and serving their own lunches, and the USDA’s first-ever farm-to-school census showed that the majority of American school districts are already serving, or planning to serve, some local food.

Classrooms are Skyping across national boundaries to compare what’s in season and contrast food cultures. And there are recent calls to make home ec mandatory. This grassroots effort to stamp out food illiteracy comes not a moment too late; the average American student gets less than four hours of food education each year! Here are other food literacy successes gleaned from around the Edible nation, that are growing, quite literally, healthy children and happy tummies. Call it a draft blueprint for “No Eater Left Behind….”

As Edible San Francisco reports, eighth graders at Everett Middle School in San Francisco produced their own PSAs focused on their community’s food needs. One student team designed a campaign to inspire their neighbors to plant home gardens even in small urban plots. Another exposed the dangers behind fast-food marketing. Part of the “Nourish” curriculum invented in the Bay Area, and used by over 1,500 schools and community groups nationwide, teacher Aurura Sekine says, “I realized they needed to learn not just about calories, fat and carbs, but how to make sustainable and conscious choices.”

A bit farther north, Edible Portland tells the story of a troop of ten 14- to 21-year-olds that rises “earlier than roosters” to work at a youth-run entrepreneurial business known as Food Works, in Portland, Oregon. The teens farm a one-acre plot of land on Sauvie Island where they not only maintain the crops, but plan and run the entire farm business. “There is a waiting list for participation, and the program draws young farmers from high schools around the city.” The Food Works program brings nutritional education to the Portland youth, as well as lessons on timeliness, responsibility and work ethic.

Back East, Edible Hudson Valley reports on a program from the Sylvia Center, a nonprofit devoted to teaching low-income children the importance of fresh fruits and veggies. With a succinct mission–“Inspiring children to eat well”–the Sylvia Center starts teaching children at age six, the importance of healthy nutrition. After multiple visits to partner farms—plucking peas, planting winter squash, roll-playing as various crops—“the program is rounded out by an elemental farm-to-table exercise: creating a lunch of green salad and minestrone soup from just-picked ingredients.” The field trips lead to classroom discussions on healthy eating habits and smarter choices. “The result is a visible change in attitude,” explains teacher Lauren Roth. “We start them younger so by the time they’re able to make decisions for themselves, when they get into junior high, they will start making healthier decisions. And so maybe we don’t need all these campaigns and ads and taxes and stuff [to influence better eating], because hopefully they’ll be making those decisions themselves.”

In Arizona, efforts to boost enthusiasm for food learning is taking aim at a different link in the school chain: teachers. As Edible Phoenix describes, at the Summer Agricultural Institute offered by the state’s agricultural extension service, kindergarten through 12th grade teachers travel the state, visit farms and stay with a host farm family to deepen their understanding of Arizona’s food and agriculture industries and help inspire lesson plans to incorporate all things food related into math, science or other classes. The natural result, says Monico Pastor, director of University of Arizona Cooperative Extension for Maricopa County, is that teachers can raise awareness and better guide “students about the many careers available in the agriculture industry.”

Even where schools are making an effort to offer more cooking, gardening and other food studies, extracurricular options are also popping up to meet demand from parents and school kids. Edible Dallas/Fort Worth describes The Cooking Company, in North Dallas, which is a culinary school dedicated to teaching toddlers to teenagers cooking skills in a fun, friendly environment. For more than a decade, the company has offered classes throughout the school year, as well as weekend camps, birthday parties and events. The school brings in culinary students as teachers, as well as artists and child psychologists to teach both creative and healthy eating behaviors.

In Edible Atlanta we find an example of the garden-based classes that have become more and more common nationwide. Schoolyard Sprouts, a nonprofit organization dedicated to teaching elementary schoolchildren the importance of healthy eating, raises a garden in the courtyard of Morningside Elementary School, in Atlanta, Georgia. The chef from the program shows up during the school year, using the garden as an outdoor classroom. This season, the program is introducing roll-out kitchen carts at each school to complement the garden, while one of the hands-on kitchen exercises for both children and teachers is the perennial parental inquiry: how to make healthy snacks. Theoretically, kids could come home better cooks than their parents.

And, as this incredible tale from Edible Brooklyn shows, sometimes a would-be gardener ends up helping out a school because it’s the best way to land a secure garden plot. According to the story in Edible Brooklyn, biking home through Brownsville—the East Brooklyn neighborhood with the city’s highest concentration of housing projects–Nora Painten couldn’t help noticing an overgrown vacant lot on Rockaway Avenue, just across from P.S. 323, soaking up the sun. Lots of paperwork and $24,282 through Kickstarter later, Painten now runs a vibrant school garden in the space, teaching little fingers how to plant garlic and teenagers how to turn compost. “Once I started doing this, and being with kids,” she says, “I realized it was what had been missing from my farming all along.”

Jacqueline Carson contributed reporting to this story.

Brian Halweil

Brian is the editor at large of Edible East End, Edible Long Island, Edible Manhattan and Edible Brooklyn. He writes from his home in Sag Harbor, New York, where he and his family tend a home garden and oysters. He is also obsessed with ducks, donuts and dumplings.

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