Q+A: Edible Schoolyard NYC

The childhood obesity rate in the United States and NYC in particular has risen dramatically over the last thirty years. Edible Schoolyard NYC, a non-profit at 55 Washington, by providing public school children with hands-on learning experiences that equip them with the knowledge and skills necessary to embrace healthy and sustainable eating habits for life. We spoke with Christiane Baker, Executive Director of Edible Schoolyard NYC - about their work building gardens with schools and changing behaviors in the City. Read on and you'll understand why we're so proud to have them doing good in DUMBO.

What is the Edible Schoolyard NYC approach?

We believe that every student has the right to learn EATING, reading, writing and arithmetic at his/her school, so we’ve created a curriculum that teaches health, wellness and sustainability that can be integrated into any New York City public school.

In 2010, we established our first Showcase School at P.S. 216 in Gravesend, Brooklyn.  Since then we’ve received great support and demand for our program. As part of our goal to make edible education accessible to all of NYC’s pubic school children, we are in the process of establishing four more Showcase Schools – one in each of the other four boroughs. At every Showcase School, Edible Schoolyard NYC will build an organic, four-season garden and Kitchen Classroom where our staff will teach our interdisciplinary curriculum, provide family and community programming and training for teachers and principals throughout New York City.

Is this New York City specific?

In the last thirty years childhood obesity in the United States has more than tripled. With nearly fifty percent of New York City’s public school students overweight or obese, our students, on average, are heavier than their national counterparts. These young New Yorkers not only suffer from immediate health problems, but are also more likely to develop heart disease, cancer, diabetes and high blood pressure by the time they reach adulthood.

If we want to reverse this epidemic that threatens to produce the first generation of Americans that lead shorter lives than their parents, we must act now.  We must give our children the vital survival skills they need to navigate our current food system by teaching them how to take care of themselves in a way that is healthy for their bodies and sustainable for our environment.

What sets Edible Schoolyard NYC apart from other garden and cooking programs out there?

There is not just one solution to addressing the childhood obesity epidemic. On the contrary, an epidemic of this proportion requires a variety of interventions, and there are many organizations working hard to improve the health of NYC’s children.  Edible Schoolyard NYC is dedicated to bringing Alice Waters’ vision of edible education to the largest public school system in the country. What distinguishes Edible Schoolyard NYC from other programs is that we are the only organization of our kind in New York City that addresses the three mediators required to change eating behavior -- knowledge, skills and environment.

Our integrated Showcase School model places our staff at low-income schools where they can teach our customized, integrated curriculum in the garden and Kitchen Classroom where students receive the knowledge, skills and supportive environment needed to make healthier choices.  And the proof is truly in the pudding vegetables! At a time when more than 86% of children in the United States meet their daily fruit intake and only 80% meet that for vegetables, our students are eating radishes, carrots and kale…and they are loving it all.  Research (and our daily experiences at Edible Schoolyard NYC) shows that if children are involved in growing and cooking their own food, they will eat it!

What’s next for Edible Schoolyard NYC?

As I previously mentioned, Edible Schoolyard NYC is expanding our program to elementary schools in all five boroughs.  We are currently in the process of selecting the next four showcase schools and plan to announce the new sites this fall. This year we will also pilot professional development opportunities for teachers and administrators who are interested in learning how to integrate our curriculum and ideas into their own schools.  At the same time, we are working with Teachers College at Columbia University to measure and evaluate the impact we are making and demonstrating the power of an edible education.

What do you want people to know about Edible Schoolyard NYC?

I want people to know that we are a small organization but that we have big plans.  We get requests everyday from parents and teachers who want us to build a garden or a kitchen at their schools and it breaks my heart that we have to turn people away – that we can’t help everyone.  Every single one of our small but nimble eight person staff feels an incredible sense of urgency in addressing the obesity crisis.  It is our goal to fulfill every request and bring an edible education to all of New York City’s 1.1 million school children. And that is what we work towards everyday.  And finally, we are always looking for meaningful partnerships – from people, organizations, corporations, whomever! So please reach out to us at info@esynyc.org if you want to learn more and get more involved.

How did you make your way to DUMBO?

We are lucky enough to house our administrative offices at 55 Washington Street in DUMBO because of the support of Jed Walentas and Two Trees.  Before coming to DUMBO, all of our employees were crammed into one tiny, closet-sized room at P.S. 216.  We were working on top of each other, trying to hold conference calls while the school bell was ringing, and commuting hours each day into Manhattan to meet with donors and partners.  Jed Walentas and Two Trees helped us find an office space and gave Edible Schoolyard NYC vital support when we needed it the most, and we will be forever grateful to him and Two Trees NYC for their incredible generosity.  So much of our success and inspiration is due to them and our new location.  We love being a part of DUMBO’s vibrant business community…and we are determined to bring an Edible Schoolyard to DUMBO!

What is your favorite thing about working at Edible Schoolyard NYC?

I couldn't have asked for a better organization to work for. Everyday we hear stories about our students and their families and the healthy changes they are making.  My favorite story is Michael’s story:  On Michael’s first day in the garden, he actually cried because he hated vegetables so much he didn't want to be around them.  Today, he frequently spends his afternoons in the garden and has decided he loves spinach and other greens (our garden teacher found him hiding in our lemon sorrel bushes eating leaves right off the plant). He even tried pesto in class! I am inspired everyday by the stories like Michael’s. Our goal is to ensure that all of New York City’s public school students have access to an edible education and have similar stories and experiences to share.

Follow ESYNYC on Facebook and Twitter or sign up for their e-newsletter

Photo via Adam Sternin/Cavan Images.