When we approached St. Philips Academy in Newark, I had no idea what kind of experience we were in for. What I thought would be a simple look into the technology behind the school’s aeroponic farming system, turned into an eye-opening experience and realization of how one small change can get the ball rolling to make monumental and all-inclusive steps in changing how kids learn about, eat, cook, and view food. It all began when St. Philips Academy became involved in a program called EcoSPACES, which brought them a rooftop garden to teach students learn how to plant and harvest vegetables. This program sparked the school's interest to truly integrate food with education and understand how food is grown. From there, the school formed a relationship with EcoVeggies, a company formed by three entrepreneurs whose goal was to use urban farming in urban areas and parts of Newark metropolitan area. This is when EcoVeggies partnered with AeroFarms to bring the aeroponic farming system to St. Philips Academy. Still following? Read on.
An aeroponic growing system is a vertical farming system that is able to grow plants in any location - without soil or sun. The roots are misted with air and water, and LED lights deliver the broad spectrum of light to produce greens that are more nutrient rich, and grow much faster then the typical crop cycle. The aeroponic farm is located in the cafeteria where the 6th grade class takes care of the system and grows the greens, but the entire school reaps the benefits of its presence and location.
Arugula, green leaf lettuce, and parsley were among the greens that were being grown when we saw the AeroFarms system. These greens are used directly in the salad bar and as ingredients for their school lunch. The students not only see how their greens are grown, but how they are used in the food they eat. To expand on this concept, St. Philips places a "market basket" right next to the salad bar, which displays all of the raw ingredients of what is going into that day's menu. But this is just the beginning of what is unique about the student's healthy lunch program at St. Philips Academy.
What we typically call a "cafeteria", St. Philips calls the "Dining Room"; the "lunch ladies" are called "chefs". In essence, the dining room is a learning environment, and the chefs are educators. The dining room is open and the students can see directly into the kitchen to see the cooking process. The chefs aim to have a relationship with the students and talk to the them about what is on the daily menu, and what the ingredients are. The chefs also make sure that the kids taste the food before asking for something else, if they say they don't like something. The lunches are served family style at the table, the seats are assigned, and the tables are made up of students from various grade levels. Each seat at the table is assigned a different responsibility ranging from set-up, service, clean-up, and compost.
This all may sound pretty strict, but the aim is to eliminate social boundaries between the grades, foster responsibility for what goes into making and serving a family meal, and to encourage the students to appreciate where their food comes from. From what we saw during the lunch we sat in on, the students seemed happy to oblige to the rules of the Dining Room, and certainly enjoyed what they were eating. For example, on the menu for that day was vegan spiced pumpkin soup, baked jerk chicken, stewed green beans, coconut quinoa with red beans, and of course the fresh salad bar. How's that for school lunch?
What I originally anticipated during our trip to see the AeroFarms set-up at St. Philips Academy, was that we would see how the aeroponicsystem works, and somewhat get a sense of how the kids can see that their greens are grown and then used fresh for their consumption in the school lunch. But what really happened when the school attained this system was a total transformation of school policies, curriculum, and spirit – and it was evident to us from the moment we walked in. The students are fully integrating education with food in an constantly evolving atmosphere. They are learning about sustainability, health, and wellness - and most importantly are combining these concepts with behaviors that transcend outside of school and into their homes.
Photos by Kendall Kish