In September, 2017 I was both excited and nervous as I began my year of service as a FoodCorps member at The Family School in the Bronx. The reason for joining FoodCorps was to join the fight against food injustice. Since this was my first-time teaching at a school, I approached it with an open heart.
On the first day of school I was presented with my first challenge – scaffolding covered what used to be the school’s outdoor garden. But I persevered. With funding from Grow To Learn and the School’s Wellness Committee, I created two mobile gardens housed on wheeled carts that provided the 2nd, 4th and 5th grade students the opportunity to grow and harvest their own herbs, pea shoots, lettuce, arugula and mesclun greens indoors. Using The Bronx Salad Toolkit for Schools, seed starter kits and a few grow lights, the students and I were able to bring an indoor mobile garden to life. The second graders learned about the life cycle of plants such as peas.
The students also learned how to make The Bronx Salad, which contains many of the same ingredients they recognized from their home kitchen tables. One student exclaimed “I love cilantro and mangoes! My mother always has them in the house.” The students really enjoyed seeing their plants growing, and even tasted fresh pea shoots they grew themselves. I loved seeing students that had been squeamish about planting and working in the dirt at the start of the school year blossom into little gardeners. One student, Isabella convinced her mother that they needed to start growing their own food, and now they have a window sill herb garden in their home.
Together with the support of the faculty, staff, Garden to Café and the students, I was able to make great strides in increasing student consumption of healthy foods and expose them to new fruits and vegetables in the cafeteria throughout the school year. First, I worked with Tonya Green, The Family School Dean, to recruit and train eight student ambassadors to serve their classmates fruits and vegetables from the salad bar and collect feedback regarding which foods or flavors students liked or disliked, and what they would like to try next. This empowered the ambassadors to make the salad more enticing by designing and posting signs above the salad bar. By doing this students were encouraged to create rainbow salads. I also made raspberry and other sweet dressings for the students to try each week. Our most popular dressing was a tangy thyme and honey vinaigrette.
The school also held five taste tests in the cafeteria. For the tastings, the Garden to Café staff and I prepared samples of roasted acorn squash with brown sugar, garlic hummus and winter apple slaw for the students to sample during lunch time. Student ambassadors carried trays of the samples around the cafeteria and encouraged fellow students to sample. As more tastings were held students were willing to try the new foods without having to be coaxed by the ambassadors.
After each tasting, students would line up to record their opinions on a dot survey board. They would stand in front and have serious debates about why certain foods were better than others. One student stated, “Everybody loves carrots. Not me. I believe the lettuce was good.” At the end of one of the tastings, my team of ambassadors and I looked around the cafeteria with satisfaction. They were glowing with pride, seeing that their fellow students were enjoying healthier food items rather than sweets. It was a win for our small, but mighty team. One of my students, Rajib, summed it up best, “Everybody’s fed, everybody’s happy.”
In pursuit of more school-wide change in the cafeteria, the Garden to Café team and I organized an alternative menu tasting event for parents of students attending PS443 and PS457. George Edwards, Director of the Garden to Café program/ SchoolFood and Holly Howwit, Garden to Café Coordinator, prepared and served brown, sugar glazed root vegetables and apple slaw. Many of the parents and children asked for seconds and were genuinely surprised that these healthy foods being served could taste so delicious. One parent exclaimed, “This tastes really good and it’s healthy! I would love it if my child and I could eat like this all the time.” When parents and teachers agreed that students should have more opportunities to eat plant-based foods, I made sure students had numerous opportunities to eat healthy, not only in the cafeteria during tastings, but also during my lessons in the classroom.
Inside the classroom, I taught healthy eating lessons to three jubilant second grade classes. I worked closely with classroom teachers to align hands-on activities with their Science, Math and English lessons. Whether the students were studying fractions using different types of seeds or learning about how plants absorb water using celery, water and food coloring, I made sure the students had fun. Often when I entered the classroom, the students would scream my name, run up to me and hug me, or break into applause. My plan clearly worked. The real reward was when my students could recall information from my lessons. They would share, “I ate my vegetables today, Ms. Angela” or “When are you coming to make a salad again?” Students always had many opportunities to eat healthy foods in my classes. Together we made veggie skewers, fruit parfaits and salads.
I also led the Green Team students in a special eight session class, ‘Don’t Stress, Eat Fresh,’ about the barriers to healthy foods in their neighborhood, and the various techniques marketers use to influence their food choices. Students learned about the difference between processed food and whole food, how to read food labels, the various techniques marketers use to influence their food choices.
During a visit to the bodega near their school, students had the chance to test their knowledge and were surprised to see how many unhealthy products had ads on their packaging targeted to kids. They were also surprised to see many unhealthy snacks positioned on the shelves at their eye level to catch their attention as they walked into the bodega. At the start of the eight session class each student signed a pledge to eat less junk food and sugary beverages. By the end of the one month course, there was a slight increase in students buying fruits and vegetables at bodegas near their school.
The Family school really accepted me as part of the school family. The relationships I made with teachers, staff and students and the experiences we had will stay with me forever. I am grateful to have had the chance to serve the children of this Morrisania neighborhood. Looking back to when I was a younger student myself attending PS 41, my school lunch barely had any vegetables or fruits, so improving the eating habits of the Family School students was a goal close to my heart. I’m happy I connected with so many kids and helped them enjoy and eat more fruits and vegetables. Creating a healthier school environment was the ultimate goal, but the moments that I shared with the teachers and students of the Family School was most important to me. Hopefully the students will remember me as “the salad girl,” as I will remember the students having a zest for life and learning.
Angela Doyle was a FoodCorps service member serving with Bronx Health REACH. She was partnered with The Family School in the Bronx, NY to integrate garden and nutrition lessons into classes, promote healthy food options in the cafeteria, and support a school wide culture of health. She is very grateful to have had the opportunity to work with The Family School, where teachers, administration, cafeteria staff, and students appreciate the importance of healthy bodies and healthy minds for learning and growing.