Schools Can Taste Good: A Chef Leads the Way in Making Good Nutrition a Required Part of the School Day

Article excerpt

If you build it, they will come.... But if you plant squash and Swiss chard, will kids eat it? Some people think so. Alice Waters, a well-known California chef at Chez Panisse launched her "Edible Schoolyard" 10 years ago. Now her pilot program is going district-wide in Berkeley, Calif., to help kids make the connections between food and table, good planting and good eating.

The idea behind the Edible Schoolyard--to address hunger and nutrition by helping children learn about agriculture and farming--is not unique to Berkeley. School gardens and farm-to-school programs are popping up in urban schools across the country. Districts from Harlem, N.Y., to Compton, Calif., are recognizing that partnerships with farmers, hospitals and other community institutions can support programs to reduce hunger and improve nutrition in low-income, urban settings.

"No sector--government, foundation, private or nonprofit--can do it all," says Kansas Representative Melvin Neufeld. "Addressing hunger challenges requires collaboration between all these partners."


In 1995, before public concern about America's obesity epidemic became widespread, Waters recognized the growing problem of poverty in public schools-deteriorating buildings, overworked teachers and undernourished kids. In her home town of Berkeley, Calif., students attending a middle school located just down the street from the prestigious University of California attended class in buildings with peeling paint and no hot water. Forty percent of the students qualified for free or reduced price lunch, and 64 percent were from an ethnic minority. Waters viewed these challenges as "a very good test case" to see if her program could be successful.

Waters began with an unused, abandoned acre on the side of Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School and planted it with seasonal produce, herbs, vines, berries, flowers and fruit trees. The garden now also includes a seed propagation table, tool shed, wood-fired oven, picnic area and chicken coop. Two teachers, the chef teacher and the garden teacher and manager, run the program. Throughout the school year, sixth, seventh and eighth grade students are involved in the garden and kitchen, preparing the beds, sowing the seeds, transplanting, composting, watering, weeding and harvesting. Kitchen activities include preparing the recipe of the day, setting the table, eating, cleaning up and preparing scraps for compost.

Students come for 90-minute sessions several times a week for lessons that weave gardening with other subjects. Math classes measure the garden beds, science classes study drainage and soil erosion. History classes learn about pre-Columbian civilizations from grinding maize. English classes write recipes.

"It is amazing that something so simple could have so many benefits ... it is a great way to teach science, to teach nutrition, and it also produces healthy food," says California Assemblywoman Wilma Chan, who has sponsored legislation to promote healthy eating and physical activity in schools.

Although teaching children how to eat right is only one goal of the program, administrators have learned that when children grow it, harvest it, and cook it, they want to eat it. It is "great to see the kids working in the garden, and being excited about gardening and eating nutritious food," says Chan.

A study conducted by Harvard Medical School in the Edible Schoolyard's fifth year of operation found that not only were kids eating more fruits and vegetables, they were getting better grades. Parents report that, to their amazement, children are asking to recreate recipes at home and eating squash and even Swiss chard.


Chef Waters has another vision. She wants to make school lunch an academic subject. She says it's a logical next step that can be built on the successful Edible Schoolyard project. Her new idea, called the School Lunch Initiative, is already underway in the Berkeley Unified School District. …