Inspired by the work of Alice Waters, who started the Edible Schoolyard Project in Berkeley, California in 1995, Edible Schoolyard NYC was born in 2010 as an affiliated nonprofit to bring “edible education” to the biggest school district in the United States.
The organization currently works in six schools located in three of the city’s five boroughs – Brooklyn, Manhattan, and the Bronx – and works within the schools to build and maintain school gardens, provide children with hands-on programs in gardening and nutrition, and train teachers to bring the program to their schools.
“We recently tripled our reach with our Network Schools Program, which brings us into four new schools in the South Bronx, the poorest congressional district in the nation, and one in Brooklyn,” says Kate Brashares, executive director of Edible Schoolyard NYC. “In total, our program reaches 3,331 NYC public school students. Through professional development for educators, it reaches many thousands more.”
Brashares says the organization mainly focuses on low-income neighborhoods with high rates of diet-related diseases. Their goals include reducing health disparities, increasing kids’ preference for fresh and healthy foods, and providing tools the schools need to change eating habits.
“Unlike many other programs, we are truly integrated into the school day: Kids go to gardening and cooking classes in the same way they would go to a science or art class,”says Brashares. “We also work with other partner nonprofits to improve overall school wellness, and offer many opportunities to get families involved through after-school family cooking classes and community events.”
She says response to the program from both students and staff has been “overwhelmingly positive” and that the kids love being out in the gardens, getting their hands dirty, and experiencing the process of growing ingredients for a salad from seed, then preparing it.
Teachers love the fact that the organization is helping to “build capacity and expand their garden spaces.” Plus, the program’s lessons are “standards-based and aligned with common core and/or state standards. For teachers, it’s a great way to engage kids in school,” according to Brashares.
It’s not just hyperbole: Edible Schoolyard NYC evaluates the program internally and also works with a team of researchers from Columbia Teacher’s College.
“In our East Harlem school, we’ve seen the number of students who ate food from the school’s salad bar jump from zero to 11 percent in just two years of programming,”says Brashares. “In our parents’ surveys that we send home to all schools, 76 percent of parents who took the survey reported that their children eat more healthy food at home than they did before Edible Schoolyard NYC programming. We’re excited to see these results.”
There are still challenges, though, including the sometimes lengthy process of building trust and relationships with the families of students and the surrounding communities.
“Our incredible teams at each of the schools work hard to find the community leaders and ways that we can engage with the parents and communities. But we’re seeing our investment in the communities paying off; at our most recent family day at our school in Brooklyn, P.S. 216, we had over 500 people attend for a day of chef demos, garden tours, and activities, and fun wellness activities, says Brashares.
This is a big difference from earlier events when the program first started where they would only get 10 or 15 people to attend.
“It is exciting to see this engagement with our program, and it is translating into more kids eating healthy food,” she says. “We want all kids to have access to this type of education. If kids grow food and cook food, they will eat it!”