Offering nutrition education in schools could introduce and encourage life-long expertise in making and eating healthy food. Independent programs such as The Edible Schoolyard Project (ESYP) are bringing food nutrition and cooking education into schools. ESYP was started over twenty years ago in Berkeley California when food movement forerunner Alice Waters and then principal of Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School, Neil Smith decided to establish a garden and teaching kitchen to expand the school’s curriculum and sense of community. They saw it as a way to make studying fractions more relevant by using real world cooking measurements, and learning about heirloom seeds in conjunction with studies of ancient cultures. Almost instantly parent involvement resulted in transforming unused space into an unconventional classroom. ESYP’s mission is to create a nation-wide food education curriculum for pre-kindergarten through high school, using gardens and kitchens as interactive classrooms for traditional educational subjects, and providing free, organic lunches for every student. They claim that incorporating these food lessons into students’ coursework can change the health and values of every American child.
It’s not just happening in storybook school districts like Berkeley. In New York City disadvantaged schools are working with ESYP to incorporate hands-on food education, focusing on the goal of changing families’ mindsets and behaviors around healthy eating. They also conduct cafeteria “try it” tastings to expose students to new and healthy foods. In Casa Grande Arizona, near the Gila River Indian Reservation, the Scholars with Shovels program is thriving. Students in grades K-8 at the Grande Innovation Academy have planted and harvested school garden produce that is used in their cafeteria. Their eventual objective is to develop a donation-based farmers market for school families that is run solely by the students.
The Portsmouth New Hampshire school system is also trying to incorporate more food studies into their programing. They offer a home economics-esque like program (now called Family Consumer Science) at the middle school, and a much more extensive culinary arts program through the Career and Vocational Tech department at the high school. But those are optional programs, and only a fraction of students participate in any kind of nutrition education or hands-on cooking instruction. In fact, the NH state minimum required number of credits for high school graduation is 20, including 14 content-specific requirements (math, English, history, science) and six electives. There is an additional almost-insignificant ¼ credit required in health. Tom Martin of the Portsmouth School Board remains optimistic about integrating food-related education in the classroom. “The exciting part is to figure out the possibilities of weaving nutrition and cooking education into everyone’s curriculum,” Martin says. “It will not be straight-forward at all, but I think there are many ways to apply pressure or integrate into existing curriculum or programs.” Life skills like nutrition and cooking are crucial to becoming a healthy and self-sufficient adult.
Each school in the Portsmouth NH school district (3 elementary, 1 middle school and 1 high school) has a garden, supported by parent volunteers. Program Manager for Portsmouth Farm to School, Kate Mitchell’s priority is to create a curriculum to offer teachers, which will allow them to integrate food education through the science courses. That was the administration's recommendation for the best opportunity to get buy-in from already overextended teachers. Mitchell is using ESYP resources to create the syllabus and credits “rock star teachers, passionate parents, and supportive principals as the greatest source of inspiration” for embracing food education in schools.
Ultimately we rely on zealous parents, willing volunteers, and progressive teachers to make this happen, not policy coming down from on high. Individuals in neighborhoods across the country are taking the initiative to help cultivate fresh, locally grown food on school grounds, teach children cooking skills in classrooms and cafeterias, and implement composting programs. There may never be an official “food education in schools” policy, but American schools can continue to build on the enthusiasm of their communities and teach future adults how to slice an apple.