Food The Chefs:

In the Edible Schoolyard Garden

Photography by Winnie Au

I love many things. Along my journey as a woman, as a wife, mama, creative and swooner, my various passions are the threads in my life’s fabric. But if I had to choose the one singular spark that ignites me, fills me with a sense of unspeakable joy, connectedness, community and love, it would have to be food. Cooking and breaking bread simply hold the power to my heart. I am not alone in this idea.

Two years ago I was invited by lovely designer Lela Rose to a benefit for the Edible Schoolyard NYC, a program that transforms young people’s eating habits and relationships to food. As we dined on an incredible meal created by some of the top chefs in our country and in our very own New York City, I learned about this powerful organization. Edible Schoolyard New York City integrates hands-on gardening and cooking classes into the public schools of historically disadvantaged neighborhoods of NYC. In these schools, kids are offered edible curriculum in the same way they learn about math, science and art — and in doing so, they develop a positive, joyful connection to food and wellness. The work of ESYNYC doesn’t end there — the organization also runs family cooking classes and farm stands, reaching not only the young people in the school, but also the broader community. ESYNYC is an autonomous nonprofit inspired by the Edible Schoolyard NYC Project in Berkeley, California, a program founded by renowned chef, activist and slow-food pioneer Alice Waters more than 20 years ago.

Since learning about the program I have met and been inspired by ESYNYC’s executive director, Kate Brashares. Kate has invited me many times to the ESYNYC garden and this fall I had the opportunity to experience the garden in full bloom, and the classroom in action. We gathered at Public School 216 in Brooklyn, in ESYNYC’s inaugural, and largest, garden and kitchen classroom space. I was invited to cook with a chef I have great respect for, Gerardo Gonzalez, who is formerly of El Rey and opening his first restaurant, Lalo, in Chinatown this week! He describes his food as “New Age Mexican”, a Californian version of the food he grew up eating. Serving bright, fresh, veggie-focused food, Gerardo is very much aligned with the mission of ESYNYC. Together, Gerardo and I had the opportunity to take a tour of the lush, abundant garden with the site’s lead gardener Mirem Villamil, who was just beaming with pride at what they had created. I was also fortunate to meet and be pecked in the butt by Momo — the ESYNYC mascot chicken — who was named in honor of none other than chef and ESYNYC supporter David Chang of Momofuku.

After choosing the freshest of ingredients in the garden, Gerardo and I got cooking in the same classroom and kitchen in which the kiddos learn. Yes, everything in it is miniature, which only added to the fun. Gerardo and I cooked a squash dish, and believe me when I say you are going to freak out over it. It introduces the veggie in a sweeter, less savory application with the addition of yogurt and honey. And the kasha, or cracked raw buckwheat, Gerardo tossed together…OH MY SWOON! Gerardo says kasha toasted in coconut oil or butter is “hands down, one of my favorite things to eat.” Well, now it is mine too — I am obsessed. Texturally, it’s very satisfying and the flavor is unbelievable! I even included toasted kasha in a dessert for my cookbook — THANK YOU, chef! Gerardo says this dish “represents my food in its simplicity, yet has addictive qualities.”

This entire experience was inspiring and uplifting. Food truly is a universal language, and Edible Schoolyard believes real, good food, and the experience of preparing and sharing it together, is transformative for students and for our communities. I couldn’t agree more!

If you would like to learn more, get involved, or donate to Edible Schoolyard NYC please do so here! Your support means that more New York City public school kids can thrive.

Edible Schoolyard NYC


Kate Brashares

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 – 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?

We are so lucky to have an extraordinary group of chefs who cook at our events, but also visit our schools, host student trips, and give our students incredible insights into the world of food and restaurants. This year, for instance, a group of our students visited Gramercy Tavern to see behind the scenes — and to eat there — the culmination of a semester-long after school cooking club with Gramercy Tavern chefs.

Tell us about your yearly benefit and other activation and events that happen throughout the year.

Each spring we have a big fundraiser, and chefs are critical to success there too! David Chang, our Culinary Chair, curates 25 amazing chefs who each cook for 20 guests — so each guest is having an incredible culinary experience. We’re also lucky enough to have Massimo Bottura doing an event for us this fall. Our chef friends are so generous with their time and skills and help us to raise money and awareness to bring our work to more New York city kids.

What have you yourself learned from working with students as part of Edible Schoolyard NYC?

Our students are what keeps me inspired and going! They are fun, interested, passionate, smart explorers. I learn something from them every day, but what I hold most dear is the idea of keeping an open mind and always trying new things. It’s one of my personal values — and a value of the organization. We’re always learning, and always exploring.

What is your dream for Edible Schoolyard NYC? 

My dream is that there comes a time when edible education — experiential, seed-to-table education — is taught in every school. Where every school has a full-time staff person dedicated to gardening, cooking and wellness in every single school. This vision is still far in the future. In the meantime I’d like to see us working in more schools, going from seven to 40 in the next five years, and expanding our teacher-training program so every school that wants it is supported to provide high-quality programming.

Chef Gerardo Gonzalez

How would you describe the food you create?

I call it New Age Mexican. It’s a very Californian, coastal version of Mexican food I grew up with.  It’s very bright, fresh, and makes you feel good, not heavy.

Can you share a bit about how you got to where you are today?

I’ve worked in the food industry, in many capacities, for all of my life. My passion for hospitality initially started as a server but quickly grew to actually making the food. I’ve always believed in participating community and have felt like restaurants are great way to contribute and create those spaces to share with friends, loved ones, and neighbors.

Tell us about your new restaurant.

Lalo, my new restaurant opening in Chinatown, is my way to hopefully provide Lower Manhattan with a new space that is warm, inviting, fresh, and new. The food is going to get more psychedelic, more adventurous, yet way approachable.

5 ingredients you would be lost without?

Sumac, Aleppo, smoked salt, lemon, coconut oil.

Cooking makes you feel…

Cooking calms me down and focuses me in a very nice way. It grounds me. Essentially I am putting all my energy into making other happy, and that feeling ain’t bad at all!

Guilty pleasure?

I tend to stress-eat a lot of chocolate, mainly in brownie form.

Can you tell us about the squash dish we made?

I love this squash dish because it is a nice way to introduce vegetables in a sweeter, less savory application. Vegetables all hold really great sweet profiles mixed with earthier notes, without being overpoweringly sugary on the palette. I love how this dish hits a lot of notes. Toasted kasha in coconut oil or butter is, hands down, one of my favorite things to eat. Texturally it’s very satisfying and the flavor is unbelievable. Using these items as a base, coupled with yogurt, it really creates a delicious and healthy treat for breakfast, a snack, or even dessert.

How did this recipe come to be? How does it represent your style of food?

This recipe really came from myself and my baker co-conspirator Lexie Smith talking about what we crave and what we eat at home. A lot of what we come up with derives from that, because it is often combinations you don’t find too easily in New York restaurants. This represents my food in its simplicity, yet has addictive qualities. This dish really showcases the best in local, in-season vegetables.

How did you come to work with ESYNYC?

I have always loved what ESYNYC stood for. Having had my own garden at a previous restaurant, I know the importance and magic that is created from growing your own food. The world would be a much better place if we each had that opportunity to touch soil and see the cycle of growth.


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In the Edible Schoolyard Garden

Roasted Squash with Kasha and Lavender

Chef Gerardo Gonzalez


  • 2 tablespoons coconut oil
  • 1 cup kasha (dry-roasted buckwheat groats)
  • 1 squash (we used honey squash)
  • 1 teaspoon of fresh lavender
  • ¼ cup greek yogurt
  • a few teaspoons of honey


  1. Heat the coconut oil in a flat sauté pan to melt. Add the kasha, or buckwheat groats. Use a ratio of 1.5 to 2 tablespoons of coconut oil to 1 cup of kasha. Bring to a high heat and cook until bubbles start to form and the kasha starts to brown. Season nicely with salt.
  2. Cut the squash down the middle lengthwise and season with oil, salt and pepper. Place the squash, cut-side down, into a 425-degree oven. This will roast the squash and steam it within.
  3. For serving, you can add anything you want. In this dish we used lavender, greek yogurt and honey. You can also feel free to garnish with pomegranate seeds, coconut flakes or cocoa nibs.
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