Newark School Puts Focus on Food

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.

aeroponic farming system

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.

Salad Bar Menu

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.

st. philips academy kitchen

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.

Lunch Menu

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

Notes From LinkedIN: X-Ray Vision Carrots & Changing the Way Our Children Eat

Changing the way our children eat could be as simple as changing the way they talk about food. According to a recent study by Cornell University's Food and Brand Lab, children in schools are almost twice as likely to choose vegetables as part of their lunches when they have more exciting, dynamic names like "Power Punch Broccoli," "X-Ray Vision Carrots," and "Silly Dilly Green Beans." While not calling for a revolution in naming, these simple observations are almost intuitive in their conclusions: making any activity fun and engaging makes children more enthusiastic about it, and eating better is no different.

I find these findings incredibly insightful when put in the context of today's larger debate on school lunches. In accordance with the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, school lunch programs throughout the nation are more nutirious than ever before, limiting calorie, sodium, and fat intake while dramatically increasing the number of fruits and vegetables being served.

When compared to the mystery-meat entrees that previously defined school lunches, one can definitely say this is a step in the right direction for improving our children's health. But leading a child to vegetables does not guarantee vegetables will be eaten. As recent features for both NPR and The New York Times have pointed out, many students are protesting the lighter fare they are being offered at school, complaining about the increased cost, reduced choice, and even of being hungry after eating their full meals.

While I'm sure high schoolers will not be wooed by "Silly Dilly Green Beans," I bring up the Cornell Study because it underscores one of the biggest yet most straightforward of challenges we all face in terms of improving our diets. While access and cost of nutritious foods are important issues in their own right, a more universal obstacle to eating better is simply the way we talk about the food we eat. As the researchers show us, positive discussions elicit positive responses and the reverse is undoubtably true when it comes to eating as a whole. I've written about this before, somewhere along our culinary path I've found that we've created this distinction between "healthy" foods and "tasty" foods, that foods that are nutritious are somehow not the same as foods that are delicious. The way students talk about their new school lunches is no different. As one Brooklyn senior told the NYT, "Before, there was no taste and no flavor [in our lunches]...Now there's no taste, no flavor and it's healthy, which makes it even worse."


Besides being false on many counts, what is most troubling about this healthy-tasty divide is the obstacle it poses to improving our eating; it's hard to want to choose "healthy" foods when you've already decided that choice will not be an tasty one. As a chef, I feel a special obligation to end this distinction. As I wrote for The Huffington Post, "I don’t distinguish the music I listen to from great music — it’s just music. There shouldn’t be an announcement that divides our food between what tastes good and what is good for us." I believe broccoli should always be presented to children as broccoli, but changing the way we talk about the goodness of this food, in both flavor and wholesomeness, is an important step in ensuring we eat better.The most straightforward solution I can think of is to simply ban the words "healthy food" from our vocabulary.

The same is even more important when it comes to our children. While we shouldn't let our own words stop us from realizing that health can be an enjoyable experience, we also shouldn't let those words affect the way our kids grow up viewing food. I have led many cooking classes for children in the Harlem area and have seem first hand the power of letting flavors speak for themselves. Telling a child they are going to eat a carrot and it will be good for them produces one result, but letting a child taste how delicious a carrot can be without any preconcieved notions of "healthy" and "tasty" results in a completely different reaction. While teenagers accustomed to daily doses of pizza or chips might have the most complaints about these menu changes, I believe letting Kindergarteners experience these more nutritious school lunches for the first time without any preformulated aversions to "healthy" foods will make a world of difference in how they view eating by the time they enter high school.

All this being said, I am aware that school lunches, new or old, have never had a good reputation for flavor. While people like Jamie Oliver and the Renegade Lunch Lady have been working to improve both the nutrition and flavor of food in schools, their delicious efforts have not yet reached every child in the nation. Simply providing more nutritious food in cafeterias is an important step, but the students' discontent reminds us that is only one in a multitude of changes we need to make in order to truly improve how our children eat in the years to come. In looking to this future of eating, one can hope that it will not only be both delicious and nutritious, but will also include many more servings of positive ideas about good food, X-Ray Vision Carrots and all.

School Lunches: What's a Mother to Do?

Never before have we been so focused on what our kids eat in the course of a school day, starting with breakfast. Is their breakfast whole grain? Are their lunches balanced with fruits, veggies, and lean proteins?  Do the calories match their needs?

I'm at least as guilty as the next parent in pondering these issues. In fact, it would be safe to call me a Poster Mom for Healthy Eating. The mother of two sons, 13 and 15 ½, I remember their distress at my refusal to buy a popular lunch kit when they were little guys because it was high in sodium, had no whole grains, and included candy.Instead, I packed lean meats and cheeses on whole grain breads surrounded by carrot slices, cucumber chunks and juicy pieces of fruit, all the while assuring them that one day the company would catch on and offer healthier kits. I believed in starting kids out with good-for-you foods.  I still remember when our then 2 year-old proclaimed that the restaurant pancakes weren't pancakes because they weren't topped with fruit. He didn't realize that fruit and pancakes were not inextricably intertwined because that was all he had eaten at home.

They're older now and make more of their own choices.  Although my kids brown bag it most days, the school has food for sale so I'm no longer the only food game in town.  Does my pancake-lover remember fruit at 15½ and select it for a snack when he's at school and free to choose? Will he eat the baked chips I sent along or will he swap them for the fried variety? Will the 13 year-old eat the grapes and carrots I packed or will they make their way down a trash chute in favor of a slice of pizza? One bag of the sugar snap peas I'd tucked into the lunch boxes for a little crunch made its way back home the other day. Does that mean the kids aren't benefitting from the array of healthy choices and I shouldn't have packed the peas?

Absolutely not. They get the message. I think my job is to hear what they like the most, present the best choices I can, help them understand the benefits of great choices, and trust that the importance of this dance is indeed seeping into their consciousness. I know that some things will go over big; others will fall flat. The rejects don't mean that I should stop trying. They mean I have to try harder—with the choices and our conversations.

Food topped our younger son's list of questions for his brother as he prepared to join him at the middle/high school this September. Despite my unending dedication to deliciously healthful eating as a way of life, not once did I hear a question about what types of salads the school served. Nope. I heard inquiries about fried tater tots. Thank heavens the school doesn't serve them!

Martha Payne : A Nine Year Old Inspires Change to School Lunches

The internet has always been a hotbed resource for sharing, reaching out and creating conversation with the world, but one nine year old girl from Western Scotland has revolutionized and single-handedly affected change on one food-oriented, political issue disturbing us all : that of the school lunch.

Martha Payne created her food blog, "NeverSeconds," over three months ago as a project to document and shed light on the options for food at her school. Describing the blog as "one primary school pupil's daily dose of school dinners,"she posts photos of her meals on a lunch tray along with a rating system which covers everything from "number of bites" to "food-o-meter". The blog quickly took off, garnering more than 2 million views in a matter of weeks. During that same time, Martha has been raising money for a charity close to her heart, Mary's Meals, which provides daily meals to over 600,000 school children in 16 different countries including Kenya, Malawi, Liberia and Haiti. Before Martha's story had reached international headlines, the young girl had helped raised about $15,000 towards Mary's Meals but since today, donations had exploded past $127,000. 

With her daily photos and extremely honest, descriptive explanations, Martha's blog gained global attention from fellow bloggers along with some love from celebrity chefs, including Jaime Oliver. While the lunch options Martha blogged about were a far, unappealing cry from the nutritious meals kids should be having, Martha's Dad was quoted, "the blog was not designed to attack. It was a nine year old's work project about school food."

Perhaps the biggest post to garner national attention was that of a small slice of pizza along with the a tiny potato croquette, which Martha then wrote about it: "I'd have enjoyed more than 1 croquet [sic] ... I'm a growing kid and I need to concentrate all afternoon and I can't do it on 1 croquette. Do any of you think you could?"

However, the nine year-old's world was shaken upside down when, over this past weekend, the local council in Scotland informed Martha she would no longer be able to post photos of her lunches after a Scottish newspaper ran the headline, "Time to Fire the School Dinner Ladies." As soon as local council Argyll and Bute banned Martha from posting the photos, word quickly spread and many folk took to Twitter to express their outrage and opinion. The extreme backlash Argyll and Bute received soon prompted them to lift the ban with council leader Roddy McCuish being put into the hot seat. "There's no place for censorship in the Argyll and Bute council and there never will be .... I've just instructed senior officials to immediately withdraw the ban on pictures from the school dining hall. It's a good thing to do, to change your mind, and I've certainly done that," McCuish said.

And change  minds she did. From the photos Martha shared to posting photos sent in from students all over the world (including California, Illinois and Norway), the attention and conversation Martha has started is astounding. She has affected change and caught the attention of the world, including celebrity chef Nick Nairn, who will be teaming up with Martha to start providing more nutritious meals at her school.

Even further, she's helped raise more money for Mary's Meals and the charity will be naming a school kitchen after her as a result of her efforts. Called, "Friends of NeverSeconds," the kitchen will be a small reminder of the good that can come from sharing, spreading word and starting conversations. How's that for food for thought?

To truly thank Martha and all of the donors, Mary's Meals posted this video from the Lirangwe School in Malawi that Martha just recently posted on her latest entry.