With Edible Schoolyard NYC assembling its annual spring gala, board members Fernanda Niven and Lela Rose talked about the nonprofit’s mission to teach kids about healthy eating—from the ground up.
How did you get involved with Edible Schoolyard NYC?
Fernanda Niven: I had seen a story on 60 Minutes about Alice Waters and Edible Schoolyard NYC in Berkeley. I used to have Lyme disease and needed to be very carful about what I ate, and I had also worked for Organic Avenue [which sells organic cold-pressed juices], so it was this perfect storm of understanding about food. A friend who is on the board of Edible Schoolyard NYC in Berkeley said to me, “We are thinking about starting one in New York City. Do you want to be involved?” I said, “One hundred percent; absolutely.”
Lela Rose: I always loved good, healthy food, and it’s something I care about with my own kids. We originally thought my son had attention deficit disorder, and I wondered what he was eating in school. So when Fernanda spoke to me about Edible Schoolyard NYC, I was like, “That’s right in my wheelhouse.”
How does the program work?
FN: We started with one school, PS 216 in Gravesend, Brooklyn, where we built an organic garden. All the children have garden time, so they learn how to grow food—actually grow it—whereas most of these kids go into a store and think food is magically there. Then they go into the kitchen classroom and make dishes from what’s been grown in the garden.
LR: They take it home, and this influences what goes on in their home lives; hopefully they want to have salad for dinner.
FN: I heard a story about the former principal of PS16. She realized that some of the children had never eaten a slice of watermelon. She thought, What kind of world is this where a kid doesn’t have a slice of watermelon on a hot day? So she implemented change in the school’s snacks—the cookies with high fat and sugar were replaced with fruit.
LR: Teachers are so frustrated with kids’ attention span, but the kids are loaded up with sugar. They’re not linking the two? I once worked with a group of charter school students for a weekend program. I brought in grapes and oranges, and there were maybe two out of 12 of those kids who had actually seen fresh fruit before. It was shocking. During kitchen classes, do the kids prepare dishes like salads, or do they cook hot meals?
FN: We have this amazing kitchen. It’s a happy, friendly place with ovens and stoves and washing and prep stations. The kids are part of the whole cooking process from beginning to end.
Do city kids find it difficult to relate to a gardening program?
LR: Every once in a while we’ll hear, “I thought that looked gross, but I tried it and loved it.” There’s a lot of enthusiasm. The kids in ESNYC want to eat the food they make, want to have it at home and say, “Mom, let’s figure out how to do this.” Which is exactly what we want to see—reaching into people’s lives.
FN: So as these kids become older they can make better choices.
LR: And they can be agents of change in their community: going into a bodega and saying, “I want an apple. I want greens for salad.” Just asking their local bodega starts the people who work there thinking, “Maybe we should start carrying apples.”
FN: There is one example I love. The principal of PS7 saw one of the kids who participated in ESNYC walking down the street carrying a McDonald’s bag. The principal was like, “Come on, McDonald’s?” The kid opened the bag, and inside it he had two salads. At McDonald’s, kids want fries, they want burgers. The idea that he would order the salad—
LR: It’s a better choice than what he would have made without this education.
After just five years, is it possible to track the long-term benefits of ESNYC?
FN: Kate Brashares, the executive director at ESNYC, has made program measurement a huge priority. The organization monitors changes in students’ attitudes toward healthy foods and their eating habits at school. ESNYC also works with their families to note how the program could be benefiting those at home.
LR: Anecdotally, the tracking that’s been done has been largely positive. We take quotes from the kids. They have a better understanding of food, and you can tell that by what they are saying about it. One fourth-grader wrote, “The plants feed us so we’ve got to feed them. You’ve got to give a little in return.”
What’s in store for your spring gala this year?
LR: What makes it so amazing is the caliber of chefs who participate. We get 25 to 30 chefs who each cook for two tables of 10 guests. The guests never know which chef will be cooking for their table until they sit down. It’s like going to a fantastic restaurant, but you have no idea which restaurant it’s going to be.
FN: We have the chef community of New York City behind us, which is amazing. They love this cause, so they donate their time.