From preschool to fifth grade, FoodPrints teaches DC public school students how to grow and cook healthy food
By Susan Able, Photography by Katie Borazzo and Susan Able
“We love cooking and we love plums.” Two fourth-grade students proudly show me a tray of baked plum crisp they just made at the School Within School on Capitol Hill.
And they’re not the only students who love growing and making fresh food at school.
For over 3,000 school children at nine DC public elementary schools who partner in FRESHFARM Market’s FoodPrints program, returning to school this fall will mean rolling up their sleeves to garden, harvest, cook and build healthy meals—right from their own schoolyards.
Brainchild of FRESHFARM founder and retired Co-Executive Director Bernie Prince, FoodPrints launched in 2005 as a pilot project that brought farmers into the schools and students out to farms. The concept took hold. Prince and her colleagues established a partnership with DC Public Schools, developing FoodPrints into a school-based gardening and cooking program that would be integrated with school curriculum.
“It’s such a joy to see how much the students look forward to FoodPrints classes and how much of a difference the program makes. It’s a legacy I’m so proud of,” Prince told me from her home in Delaware, where she retired last year to become a full time farmer.
The program has recently expanded into Wards 7 and 8, many more schools are interested in adopting the program if they can find funding and space. School gardens supply much of the produce used in FoodPrints classes and additional ingredients come from FRESHFARM farmers markets and area grocers. In a new partnership with the school meals division, FoodPrints schools will begin offering FoodPrints recipes in the lunchroom this year.
Here’s how the program works: Students in preschool to fifth-grade schools participate in one FoodPrints “field trip” each month. Each two- to three-hour session, led by one of the several FRESHFARM FoodPrints teachers, has four components: gardening, cooking, eating and educational content designed to teach healthy-eating skills, including a preference for local, in-season produce, and reinforce their classroom learning.
FRESHFARM Markets Director of Education Jennifer Mampara explains that the acts of gardening and learning to cook have natural applications to classroom learning. Arithmetic is used in cooking measurements; the shapes and angles of garden produce are used to teach geometry. Students learn to calculate square footage by measuring garden plots. Biology and principles of sustainability are front and center, whether it is the process of seed sprouting and composting for younger children or how nutrition affects one’s body and health.
“Our goal for fifth graders is have them to cooking independently,” Mampara tells me. “We’ll layer in the math challenge of asking them to halve or double the recipe. We ask them to identify and harvest the produce they will need for the recipe from their school garden. And they love it because they are doing real work. Hands-on experience is such an effective way to learn.”
The program has won acclaim for its work, and was featured on National Public Radio in 2014. It also got the notice of another supporter of school gardens and healthy eating: First Lady Michelle Obama.
The First Lady visited Watkins Elementary School’s fifth grade FoodPrints class earlier this year, the first stop on a national tour of surprise garden visits she made to promote her Let’s Move campaign.
Mampara was thrilled. “Mrs. Obama was sincerely interested in what the kids were doing. She stayed for over an hour and helped the class make kale salad and corn tortillas from scratch. She encouraged them to keep eating well, to keep learning about food and gardening. Before she left, each child got a hug. It meant so much to them—how wonderful for the First Lady to come and congratulate you on making kale salad and eating it.”
FoodPrints is funded by a variety of sources, including private foundations, city and federal funds and parent-teacher associations (PTAs). There are several DC public schools and charter schools that would like to start Food Prints, but this would require time, funding and engaged parent and teacher involvement. Creating sustained funding is the biggest challenge to program expansion.
My own FoodPrints experience ended with lunch with the fourth grade at the School Within School, where the students whipped up a menu that included potato soup, kale salad and the plum crisp dessert. Two dozen children confidently wielded mashers, knives and graters—handily slicing and dicing away. One team was hand-massaging a big bowl of shredded kale. “It improves the texture,” they taught me.
Indeed it did. Sitting on a tiny chair, I ate the kale salad for lunch with the class of 9-year-old cooks as we shared a meal they made with produce from their own garden or a nearby farm.
The future? “This program represents the future of educating our children about food and nutrition in their communities,” says FRESHFARM Executive Director Mike Koch. “We are committed to scaling this important program to reach more students and families each year and, in turn, creating greater support for the farmers in our region and the foods they produce.”
Mampara agrees. “We’ve created a workable model for children to connect to real food in ways that will stay with them the rest of their lives. Students come away from FoodPrints with positive, memorable, engaging experiences with nutritious food—a desperately needed balance to the billions of dollars spent each year to advertise a fast-food culture and influence children’s food decisions.”
For more information on FoodPrints, including recipes, information on volunteering and making donations, visit foodprintsdc.com.