Bringing the Farm to the School (& making greens cool!)

by Frank Mentesana (Founding Director of EcoSpaces Education, Philips Academy Charter School in Newark, NJ).

 

I’m Frank Mentesana, Founding Director of EcoSpaces Education. I’ve had a deep connection to food my whole life. Growing up in an Italian family, let’s just say, we were “food focused.” If we weren’t eating, cooking or shopping for the best ingredients, we were endlessly conversing about it. That was probably the foundation that led me to a long career in food-related jobs. I’ve worked in hotels, owned restaurants, worked in food publishing as a food-stylist, writer, and photographer and even volunteer in kitchens at food pantries in my down time… so yes, it’s mostly all about food for me. Following tradition, when I’m not working at it, I am cooking, eating, and finding the best new food experiences. That’s my idea of fun!

Looking to find some balance between the somewhat manicured world of food photography and something I felt really mattered to the health of our communities, I came upon a school – Philip’s Academy Charter School in Newark, NJ. It was a chance meeting that turned into an almost ten year commitment to bringing food education to kids and families. What started out as a short consulting job designing a healthy lunch program, has turned into EcoSpaces Education (www.ecospacesed.org) a holistic food literacy program that connects kids to food so they can live their lives empowered to make healthy choices.

When students grow their own food, learn how to cook it, sit together at a table to eat it and return their food scrapes to the compost so it can nourish the soil for more growing, they are making connections that begin to form healthy relationships to food that will last a life-time.
We created EcoSpaces Education (http://ecospacesed.org) at our model school, Philip’s Academy Charter School in Newark, NJ as a way to address diet-related illnesses and the nation-wide obesity epidemic. The goal of EcoSpaces Education is to allow students to have as many touch-points to real, whole foods as possible.
By making food education a priority and therefore, an integral part of the fabric of the school, our approach is holistic: one that connects food based hands-on activities to interactive learning environments: The Dining Room, The Rooftop Garden, The Teaching Kitchen and The AeroFarms Indoor Growing System.
By creating learning environments, children engage in these activities that are connected to their classroom curriculum while incorporating Food Literacy Education (understanding the impact of food choice on health and the environment). Empowered with this knowledge, students are therefore, able to make good choices that affect their own personal health and the health of our planet.
The Dining Room is a learning environment where students and faculty eat family styles meals with the intent of building a strong culture of community. Every student at Philip’s Academy participates in nourishing his or her body with a delicious, fresh, seasonal and nutritious lunch. The lunch program is aimed at providing students with healthy meals while building a deep understanding of the importance of a well-balanced diet.
Another key learning environment, the garden, is used as a classroom to connect students with the natural world and the true source of their food. As an experimental and experiential learning classroom that focuses on the relationship between food and life, students plant and harvest ingredients from the garden to create healthy seed-to-table meals.
Being the only school in the country to have an AeroFarms indoor growing system, it is surely one of the most unique of our learning environments. AeroFarms’ system takes lessons to another level of connectivity. Housed in the school dining room, it sits just a few feet away from the salad bar where the children eat the greens they helped grow. How’s that for local? Students from Grades K-8 engage in the system from the youngest of students seeing the germination process and plant parts (roots, stems and leaves) up close and personal to older students’ connection to science and technology. Students study the concepts of water usage, plant selection and care, plant nutrient requirements, photosynthesis, seed germination, and agricultural technology. Whatever the subject connection, it shows students that the future of food is in their hands.
A favorite leafy green amongst our students is kale, which they grow in both soil and in the
AeroFarms system. Here’s a great kitchen lesson with kale as the main ingredient for you to enjoy with the young chefs in your lives. Click here to view the lesson!

Former First Lady of the USA Michelle Obama enjoying a healthy snack with the students of Philips Academy Charter School (PACS) in Newark, NJ.  

What began as an opportunity to give back to community, has turned into my life’s passion. EcoSpaces Education continues to grow and as Director, I find myself spending a good amount of my time writing grants, making connections, managing a team including a group of FoodCorps Service members (www.foodcorps.org) and sitting at my computer, and from time to time I stop. I leave my office, go out to the Garden, down to the Dining Room, or up to the Teaching Kitchen and connect to kids. It is a quick reminder as to why I do the work I do, when I see them cutting a carrot using the “bear-claw” technique, pulling up sweet potatoes in delight from the garden, or biting into a kale salad they just made in the kitchen. I am engrossed by their excitement, willingness to try new vegetables, and their endless stories about their food experiences. What more can I say… I love the work I do and happy I get to now call this my career.