Most school kids get lectured about healthy eating. But students at AmPark Neighborhood School learn how to cook nutritious food themselves.
Several times a year, the kids participate in hands-on cooking classes where they learn how to prepare healthful meals from simple, plant-based ingredients. The recipes use seasonal produce — apples in the fall, potatoes in winter, kale in the spring.
For years, health and wellness crusaders have advocated for this approach as a way to fight childhood obesity. Former first lady Michelle Obama championed the cause from her White House vegetable garden. During her time as first lady, the Obama administration passed reforms that required schools to increase fruits and vegetable servings at lunch. Since then, schools like AmPark have served nutritious produce from local farms, and sometimes even on-campus gardens.
“The goal is to show students that lettuce comes from the ground, not from a bag,” explained Ricardo Diaz, a Bronx native who works with Wellness in the Schools. The organization places trained chefs like Diaz in cafeterias and trained coaches in schoolyards.
Diaz is one of 25 chefs working in 87 schools throughout New York City as part of an effort to teach students to prepare meals using local, seasonal ingredients. In his cooking lab, students not only learn how to chop onions, they also learn the nutritional value of different foods. The goal is to make more food from scratch and less out of a box.
Healthful, fruit- and vegetable-rich school lunches are now threatened by Trump’s proposed budget cuts. This hurts kids in the short and long term. Food is about more than just nutrition. Plant-based lunches made of locally-sourced ingredients have a smaller carbon footprint than meat-rich meals that are transported long distances.
Programs like Wellness in the School don’t just teach kids to eat healthy. They also help them go green. To that end, AmPark has organized field trips to the nearby Kingsbridge Community Garden to plant potatoes, carrots and other root vegetables. Students will go back in May and see how they’ve grown.
Students are also growing food in indoor tower gardens. These are well-lit vertical planters that produce lettuce, eggplant, basil and, occasionally, more garden-variety vegetables. The goal of all of this is to teach students to cook sustainably, from farm to kitchen table.
“It’s not a lunchtime program,” Wellness in the Schools Managing Director Marjorie Wolfson said. “It’s a lifetime program.”