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Sitting in the shade of a wooden pergola, we found some 8th grade boys doing a tasting exercise with Catkin Flowers. Flowers is the Director of Programming for the school. She develops the curriculum; making sure the students meet state requirements alongside what they call, food literacy.
"The goal is to have students embracing healthy eating, environmental stewardship and bringing these messages home to their families." Flowers says.
The school embeds that into the day to day learning of its students. Using their rooftop garden, teaching kitchen, and even the cafeteria as classrooms. Flowers explains that students who are learning geometry will come to the garden and measure the angles of the flower beds. Students learning about fractions will bake, using measuring cups to grasp the concept of parts of a whole. Even when learning the classics, students are encourage to read in the garden, or write poetry about their favorite plant. In this way the school meets all of New Jersey's core curriculum in an interactive way, that keeps healthy choices in the forefront of student's minds.
"We can really make learning a lot more hands on, fun, interesting. And they get to learn that, when we're doing these lessons, we're also caring for the Earth, growing food, and they have a chance to harvest, and cook the food themselves. And we find that when students are so involved in every aspect of growing, harvesting and cooking food, that they naturally want to eat it." Flowers says this eliminates the "yucky" excuse many children make for not wanting to eat healthy or try new foods. Their natural curiosity about their own handiwork leads them to eat it!
But the program goes beyond the school walls, reaching out to families and the community on the whole.
EcoSpaces School started in 2008 in hopes of making healthy foods more accessible, not only to children, but to families in Newark. The Brick City is considered a "food desert;" an area that has limited access to fresh, healthy foods. The school works to solve that problem through knowledge. Flowers explains,
"Understanding that it is a food desert, we incorporate that into what we teach. Whenever we are teaching students how to grow plants, we also bring that lesson home. So parents are invited to come in, work in the garden, or come to cooking workshops. And what their students are learning, they're learning and we're giving them the tools to start a community garden, start growing crops, a home garden. And also connecting them with farm stands or farmer's markets."
The school hosts its own farm stand on Thursdays after school. Bringing in local produce for families to purchase. They also create recipe cards and bags for the children to encourage their parents or family members to cook with them.
"Kids can say I made this, I want to bring it home, but here, everything we need is right here. Then that obstacle of accessing food isn't a barrier to them preparing it at home." Flowers goes on to explain that when they show adults what a farmer's market is, what it should look like, then they know what to look for.
EcoSpaces School hopes to expand this program not only throughout New Jersey, but throughout the country. Addressing America's ongoing health and obesity epidemic. They believe if we can get the next generation to have a better relationship with food, the kids just might teach us something.
If you would like to volunteer or donate to EcoSpaces School; or if you would like to learn more about the program to bring it into your own community, please reach out to them at the information below.
Phillips Academy Charter School
342 Central Ave.
Newark, NJ 07103