Can you please explain what Edible Schoolyard NYC is and how it came to be?
Edible Schoolyard NYC is dedicated to working with kids in New York City public schools and transforming their relationship with food in a positive, joyful way. We are embedded in public schools in historically disadvantaged neighborhoods, teaching garden and cooking classes. Kids come to garden and kitchen class in the same way that they go to math, or science, or art. We also run many community programs, family cooking classes, and farm stands, aiming to reach not only the young people in the school, but the broader community. In addition to working in seven schools directly, we also run a teacher training program where we train other educators in our hands-on, positive “edible education” model, reaching over 200 educators a year. We are an affiliate program of Edible Schoolyard Project in Berkeley, founded by Alice Waters over 20 years ago. We have been in New York since 2010, and are an independent non-profit, inspired by Alice’s vision, but adapting to the unique needs of schools in New York City, the largest school district in the country.
What is the core value of ESYNYC?
Our work as an organization is guided by several core values, including community, learning, equity and wellness. But at the heart of what we do is belief in the transformative power of food, and of engaging children (and adults!) in hands-on experiences with food. We’ve seen time and time again that if kids grow food, if they cook food, they will eat it. Every cooking class ends with our students laying the table, sitting around the table together, saying, ‘Thank you, gardeners, thank you cooks,” and eating the food they have prepared together. Food truly is a universal language — and we believe that real, good food, and the experience of preparing and sharing it together, is transformative for our students and for our communities.
If you had to choose just 3-5 ideas you hope to impart to a child through Edible Schoolyard NYC, what would they be?
Oh, where to start! I think the thing we most want to do is get kids to fall in love with fruits, vegetables and healthy eating through positive experiences with food. We hope they will learn that fruits and vegetables are delicious — and healthy — and start to eat more of them. In addition to changes in eating behavior, one of the things that we see a lot of is a sense of pride and achievement in being successful in our classes. For many children who may struggle in a traditional classroom, our hands-on sensory learning can be incredibly positive — kids realize they can do things they never thought they could — and that changes their opinion about their own abilities in a way that goes beyond cooking or gardening. Finally, we think about our students as “agents of change”. We hope we are teaching them to be questioning citizens, and that they’ll feel empowered to be advocates for a healthier food system – for themselves, and for their communities.
Tell us about your own background and how you found your way to Edible Schoolyard NYC.
Most of my career has been spent in consumer goods marketing, both in beauty and food. When I started a family of my own, I began to reexamine my career and think about what I wanted, and I realized that the parts of my job where I was getting the most satisfaction and fulfillment were when I was working on philanthropic initiatives — and I decided to make the move to non-profits. I started working for a charter school network, and then, shortly after I had my third child, found my way to Edible Schoolyard NYC in a temporary position as the interim Executive Director. I fell in love with the organization and the mission, and here we are, four years later!
How many schools are you currently found in? And how do you choose a location?
We’re currently in seven schools directly and work annually with approximately 200 educators through our “train the trainer” program. There is far more demand for this type of program than we can meet! We look for schools that have an engaged principal and staff and are committed to working with us to incorporate garden and kitchen education into the school day. We’re also focused on elementary and middle schools, in areas of New York that have been identified as having the highest rates of diet-related diseases (South Bronx, Central Brooklyn, and East and Central Harlem), and we focus on schools that wouldn’t have the resources to implement this type of programming on their own.
Can you speak about the team of farmers, gardeners, and educators? Are they all volunteers?
We have 24 staff, primarily working directly in programming, working with kids or other educators, as well as a small but mighty development team that fundraises for the program. Most of our resources go towards the salaries of this incredible team that is dedicated to transforming kids’ relationships with food in a healthy, positive, joyful way. Our staff is incredible — the heart of the program — and a truly dedicated and brilliant team of educators, gardeners, chefs, and passionate advocates for a healthier food system. Our paid staff are supported by an amazing group of volunteers who support our work in the garden and kitchen. The edible curriculum includes everything from working in the garden to cooking to education about healthy eating.
Take us through what the children learn in a given semester.
While the range of programming varies depending on the unique needs of the school and the community, and the amount of staff we have in that location, we typically will see a student at our Brooklyn campus three times a month. They’ll go to garden class twice a month, and depending on the grade level, be learning about Native American planting techniques, or math through planting depth and spacing, or science through soil exploration. All our classes are connected to common core and state standards, and are grade-level appropriate — our kindergartners might do a sensory scavenger hunt, while our 8th graders are exploring food justice through an exploration of the food system. In cooking class, they’ll cook a different seasonal recipe each month, using something that’s grown in the garden — for instance, harvest soup with delicious seasonal squash. They come in not ever having cooked before and leave knowing how to chiffonade and dice like a pro.
Can you share a specific story of a veggie-resistant child and his or her transformation?
We’re often asked about how we deal with “picky” eaters, and one of the things that we’ve seen over and over in our program is how the power of our seed-to-table education gets kids to try things. If they grow it, if they cook it, they eat it! We also have a “kitchen contract” that we constantly refer to in our cooking classes: “keep an open mind and don’t ‘yuck’ my ‘yum’!” Often kids who come to us saying that they don’t like vegetables try a little bit of a delicious carrot pulled straight out of the ground, or a just-picked tomato, and they find — hey, that’s delicious. I hear so often from kids, and their parents, “I didn’t like vegetables before – I love them now!”
There are farmers’ markets at the schools. Can you speak to this and other ways the local community and parents can get involved?
One of our key focuses is on engaging the whole community of the school, from teachers to families to our neighbors. We do family cooking classes, community events, from open garden days to participating in PTA meetings. One of the ways we engage the broader community is by holding a weekly farm stand at some of our schools. We sell extra produce from the garden, supplemented with locally-grown seasonal crops. We hand our recipes and do tastings, and it’s a “pay what you can” model, and we also accept SNAP (Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program) benefits. It’s a wonderful way to get ingredients into the hands of the community, and it’s all run by our student leaders.
So what does it take to get one of these gardens off the ground?
Every school can, and should, have a garden, and it doesn’t have to be a half- acre — just a few planter boxes or an indoor herb garden can be transformative! But for the work we do, it’s not just the garden or the kitchen classroom, it’s the resources and staff we provide that enable these intensive, experiential garden and kitchen classes to happen. And the biggest barrier to us being in more schools is resources – the funding to not only build the garden, but maintain, staff and build true communities of wellness in the public schools that need it most.
How can people get involved and donate?
Visit our website – www.edibleschoolyardnyc.org to find out more, get involved, and donate! You can also sign up for our newsletter to find out more and stay in touch!
Can you talk about the impressive roster of chefs involved in ESY?