At St. Philip’s Academy in Newark, New Jersey, it’s never too early to take responsibility for protecting the environment. From kindergarten through eighth grade, students learn about sustainable urban farming by growing food in the school’s science lab and rooftop garden. They harvest everything from leafy greens to melon that is then served for lunch in the school cafeteria and later composted back in the garden. The initiative, called EcoSPACES (for Eco-St. Philip’s Academy Cultivating Environmental Sustainability) is led by Frank Mentesana – a cookbook author, food stylist, and co-founder of the New York City bakery Once Upon A Tart.
Mentesana joined the St. Philip’s faculty in 2008. Inspired by Alice Waters’ Edible Schoolyard seed-to-table teaching model, he converted St. Philip’s original 4800-square-foot ornamental roof garden into plots to grow food. He also overhauled the school lunch program, built a teaching kitchen, and worked with the faculty to bring hands-on learning opportunities about sustainability into the curriculum. Privately funded, St. Philip’s Academy helps more than 350 inner-city students each year obtain a superior education with a focus on community responsibility.
What made you want to apply your culinary expertise to an elementary school in Newark?
I volunteered to revamp the lunch program at my son’s school in Maplewood, New Jersey, and that piqued my interest. I started to feel a responsibility for taking my knowledge to a place where it could make a difference, and I knew Newark was a city with a long history of need. K-through-8 is a prime age to get kids on board to make healthy choices and environmental awareness a part of who they are – as opposed to trying to convert them in high school.
Your first step was to transform the lunch program. Why?
Kids were bringing in chips, soda and candy and calling it a meal. There was no way we could teach wellness and sustainability while they were eating unhealthy food.
St. Philip’s invested in redesigning the kitchen to support feeding 400 people without serving anything processed. We use only whole grains and no hydrogenated oils, trans-fats or refined sugars. We never fry. If we want crispy, we bake. We even make our own ketchup to avoid high fructose corn syrup. And of course there’s a salad bar every day. It all has to be locally grown, in season, and most importantly, delicious. One hundred percent of the kids participate; we don’t even allow outside lunch to come in any more.
How did the kids react to the new menu?
It took one-on-one work with individual kids to literally bring them by the hand to the salad bar and explore what’s there. Many of the teachers sit at the tables and encourage them to try things; older students sit with younger ones and do the same. Peer pressure works – and games.
We had butternut-squash lasagna yesterday, and the side was spinach-and-tomato salad. We put spinach on every kid’s plate and played a game that on 1-2-3, everyone lifts his or her fork at the same time. And they all tried it! Then we discussed the taste. It’s easy to say, “Blech, that’s disgusting!” But what happens if your friend sitting next to you thinks it’s fantastic? We give them language to describe the flavor: it may be too salty or sweet, it might taste like carrots, but it’s never disgusting.
Are there any foods that just don’t work?
Tofu. Now matter how we cook it, they don’t like it.
What was the result of the change in diet?
There was an immediate impact. Teachers began saying, “Wow, there’s a different focus in the afternoon when kids are eating better.”
Why did you also change the dining room tables from rectangle to round?
There’s something powerful about a round table; it has an equal-balance effect that creates a community feeling. And instead of a cafeteria line with trays, the kids sit down family-style and serve each other from bowls and platters. Family dinners are the time when kids are most relaxed and open, and the same thing happens here. We see kids engaging in focused conversation – and most importantly, really listening to each other.
Each child has a responsibility to his or her table, like getting the silverware and setting it, wiping the table down or bringing the food out. It’s amazing how the kids take complete ownership of that. Yesterday, a first-grader was on the verge of tears because a classmate did her job of laying out the napkins! The student who made the mistake, another 7-year-old, actually apologized for over-stepping his boundaries. He really wanted her to understand there was no malicious intent. It was astonishing to watch them negotiate a resolution.
How is the garden used?
Every grade spends time in the garden, from planting to harvest, all year round. From K-through-5 it is all about a basic understanding of how plants grow, starting as seeds that need water, air and sun, and that need to be nurtured and weeded. There’s an air of excitement when they’re out there!
I love helping children learn that the food they eat didn’t come from a package in a grocery store. So many kids have no idea. I had a student pull out a radish from the garden and say, “Oh my god, it’s a tomato!” He knew it was red, therefore it could have been a tomato. It’s been an amazing learning curve for these kids.
How do teachers work the eco-SPACES agenda into the curriculum?
Teachers plant crops to accompany lesson themes, like a salsa garden of onions, cilantro and jalapeno peppers to align with a study of Latin America and Spanish language, which culminates with a Cinco de Mayo party.
The garden, and the concept of sustainability, is also brought into other formats – like a knitting class where the kids pick marigolds to make yellow dye for the yarn. When second graders learn about fractions, they make round pizzas and divide them into quarters. They put basil from the garden on a quarter of the pizza, peppers on another quarter, and clearly see that a quarter and quarter makes a half. So we create an opportunity for learning about arithmetic, gardening, cooking, and even health and wellness concepts, because the pizza is made with whole grain dough.
Are the teachers enthusiastic about the program?
It’s evolving. The teaching kitchen was much more embraced initially than the garden, because we all know how to cook but we don’t all know how to garden. Some teachers were terrified because they thought they had to have green thumbs. Part of our responsibility is to instruct the teachers how to be comfortable and knowledgeable about the garden without adding anything to their already full plates.
How are the parents responding?
We’re hearing, “Wow! I go shopping with my child now and suddenly they want me to buy, cucumbers, carrots, lettuce!” And from the sustainability point of view, I hear parents say, “What are you doing to my kids? They yelled at me for buying a plastic water bottle and then throwing it in the garbage!” And we say, “Yup! That’s exactly what we’re trying to do – to get the kids to be stewards of the earth.” The choices they are learning to make here will carry them through the rest of their lives. When they share that with their family and community, it’s contagious.
Carolyn Jacobs is a television producer and writer. She has created narrative and documentary programming for AMC, PBS, TLC, vh1, Showtime and other networks.