by Annette Slonim
Established in 2010, Edible Schoolyard NYC is a nonprofit organization committed to bringing the vision of Alice Waters, acclaimed restaurateur and organic food pioneer, to New York City public schools as an effective solution to our childhood obesity crisis. When Alice Waters created the first Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley, California in 1995, she knew that the best way to teach children the connections between food, health and the environment was by integrating an edible education program into our schools’ everyday curriculum.
As the first official Edible Schoolyard affiliate in the Northeast, Edible Schoolyard NYC not only provides professional development training to teachers citywide, but has also developed two demonstration sites at schools; the first with PS 216 in Gravesend, Brooklyn, and the second with PS/MS 7/Global Tech in East Harlem. At these schools, we provide a hands-on, standards-based, seed-to-table education that students enjoy and share for their entire lifetime. To this end, we envision a future in which our children are educated and empowered to make healthy food choices for themselves and their communities.
School gardens in New York City take on many forms, from a few raised beds or small container garden to window farms, hydroponic or aquaponic growing systems, to in-ground gardens or larger urban farms. In Brooklyn, our demonstration school has the available land and space to accommodate a half acre in-ground garden, including a small orchard and greenhouse. In the concrete jungle known as Manhattan, our garden is one example of what can be done to make the most of a schoolyard in a dense urban setting.
Standing in front of PS 7 in East Harlem, you would never guess what lies beyond the front doors of the school and through to the center courtyard. Up until a year ago, the courtyard and playground were typical of any New York City school, paved over with concrete and decorated with sidewalk chalk and basketball court lines. While the basketball court remains, the central courtyard is now home to a teaching garden full of brightly colored recycled containers, a compost system, tool shed, and circle of bright orange benches where garden classes take place. The garden has also become a relaxing and welcoming space for students and staff to enjoy during lunch and recess in the warmer months.
Twice a month during the growing season in spring and fall, students visit the garden to participate in every step of growing their own food. Pre-Kindergarten through 8th grade students learn seed starting, watering techniques, how to make compost and build healthy soil, and when to harvest their crops. During the colder fall and winter months, students take time to reflect and observe in the garden, learn through crafts, and plan their crops for the spring. The majority of the produce grown in the garden is used in the kitchen classroom and for garden tastings. At the end of every garden class, students are offered a tasting of fruits, vegetables or herbs as an opportunity to sample new foods growing in the garden. One of the most popular garden tastings is sorrel; students love the tart lemon flavor!
Our kitchen classroom occupies a sunny corner of the second floor of PS 7, looking out over the courtyard-turned-edible-schoolyard. The view from the kitchen to the garden and vice versa reflects the cycle of seed to table education. As one first grade student has said, “I know why we garden. So we can grow the food and cook it in kitchen class.” Making connections between what they are growing in the garden to what they are cooking in the kitchen is one way students learn about seasonality in local food systems.
Every month, all of our 600 students come to kitchen class where they make a seasonal recipe and develop their culinary knowledge and skills. For example, in September, students learn to make Salsa with tomatoes and scallions from the garden and in December, they learn to make “Greens Two Ways” with kale and chard freshly harvested from the garden. While every class from Pre-Kindergarten through 8th grade prepares the same recipes, our kitchen teachers adapt the lessons with age-appropriate techniques for students to make the recipes.
During kitchen lessons, students practice teamwork and good communication skills to prepare the recipes with their classmates. When they have finished cooking, students set their tables and prepare to taste. An important part of the Edible Schoolyard NYC program is acknowledging where our food comes from, how it was grown, who grew it, how it was prepared and by whom. When the students sit down to eat together, before tasting they acknowledge themselves and their peers who were involved in all of these steps by saying together “Thank you gardeners, thank you cooks!”
Through the garden to kitchen connections, which include composting all of their kitchen scraps, students are developing their environmental knowledge and awareness of the differences between food they grow themselves and much of the food they find at the corner store or on supermarket shelves. In our garden and kitchen classes, we have seen an increase in student’s knowledge and enjoyment of healthy eating. As one of our kindergarten students has said, “I like planting seeds because then they grow into fruits and vegetables and they make us healthy and strong.”
Ultimately, we envision a future in which our children are empowered to make healthy food choices for themselves and their community. Through our model of integrated seed-to-table education, we are working to transform the hearts, minds and eating habits of young New Yorkers, and we are inspired every day by the excitement and joy of learning we experience in Harlem and Brooklyn.
For more information and to sign up for the Edible Schoolyard NYC newsletter, please visit www.edibleschoolyardnyc.org.
Annette Slonim is a Program & Community Coordinator for Edible Schoolyard NYC. She can be reached at 347-565-0100 and firstname.lastname@example.org.