Pilot Program

Excerpts from the grant report to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation:

The Princeton School Gardens Cooperative began its work by establishing edible gardens at all six of the town’s public schools, with Dorothy Mullen’s gardens at Riverside Elementary School as a model.

But we understood that gardens, by themselves and powered only by volunteers, have limited impact and little chance of long-term success.

To embed garden- and food-based learning in the culture of the school – to help teachers and administrators take ownership of this experiential learning – we knew we needed to do more than facilitate pea planting in the spring. The lessons of the garden needed reinforcement in the schools.

Children, we understood, needed to link those fresh peas and the spinach they planted, and the fields they see all over New Jersey, to their own communities, to lessons in class, to food in school cafeterias and to what they put in their mouths.

We conceived of a farm to school project, Garden State On Your Plate, that would bring fresh produce and products grown by local farmers into school cafeterias at lunchtime, where local chefs would prepare recipes for tastings and nutrition education.

We calculated that the effort would directly reach 720 students and their parents, plus all school employees at Community Park and Littlebrook, two of the four elementary schools in town. We aimed to make recipes and cooking tips available, to fund farmers’ visits to schools, to provide regular communication to parents, to facilitate field trips, and to provide supporting films, books and curricula guides.

So after a year of tastings, did the Garden State on Your Plate program help to embed garden- and food-based education in the schools? In a word, yes. Here are the details.

Goals for the project

1. The children would eat the food;
2. The parents would attend the tastings and take the recipes home;
3. To link for students the food they choose with the larger world;
4. The teachers would come to the tastings – and ask questions;
5. Provide support for the PRS wellness policy;
6. Deepen the bonds between schools, the community and local farmers;
7. Farmers would reach out to schools – beyond the pilot – in new ways to get their food on lunch trays;
8. The administration would develop enthusiastic support;
9. The administration would urge Chartwells, the school meals purveyor, to expand its local food initiative beyond apples;
10. The NJ Department of Agriculture would jump on board and make our
information available to other schools;
11. The videos would be viewed nationally; and
12. Inspire the PRS administration to take a national leadership role in this crucial aspect of K-12 education

Public service. We met, and in some cases exceeded, eight of the 12 goals. Our tastings did serve those 720 students and their parents – and teachers and staff at two elementary schools – 10 times. To determine whether children were trying the tasting portions provided them, teams of parents surveyed each student during the tastings. (Those teams of parents, in addition to others who accepted our invitations to join their children for lunch, sampled the small portions.) We found that a majority of students – from kindergarteners to adolescents – were willing and eager to sample the food. Some items were more popular than others, such as sweet potato chips, which, at one school, were tried by 97 percent of the students. But less popular or even never-tried foods were also tested, such as raw cranberries: In one school, 86 percent of the children sampled them.

Even more to our delight were the children’s comments. During a tasting dedicated to spinach, one entire table of students agreed that the cream of spinach soup was “even better than all the ice cream in the world.” And the soup was hot, served on an unseasonably hot day. At another tasting, a parent volunteer was told that the beet soup “is extraordinary.” At the tasting dedicated to corn, a child proclaimed about the polenta, “This is my new favorite food.” Finally, at a later tasting, after slurping up raw pea tendril salad from his small sample cup, a student announced, “I want a big portion of this as my lunch!”

Recipes were included as part of a two-page fact sheet for eight of the 10 tastings and went home with children in their backpacks the day before each tasting. These fact sheets, along with videos shown in advance of each tasting, chefs’ talks immediately before each tasting and farmer appearances during the events, ensured that children had information that linked them to their food and the larger world.

Teachers and staff came to the tastings, staying to ask questions of us, the chefs and the farmers – and to talk among themselves. Science and health teachers, in particular, saw connections, with one promising to plant all the vegetables and berries featured. We sent five teachers to a two-day organic farming seminar, building goodwill and enthusiasm for the project and, incidentally, the connected goals of sustainable farming practices. Both principals have enthusiastically supported the project, and cafeteria staffers, who work for Chartwells, were generous with their equipment and happy to have samplings; one said she would love visit each of the chefs in their kitchens – she knew they had so much to teach her.

The boilerplate PRS wellness policy, which encourages consumption of fruits and vegetables, received a big boost with every tasting, since ingredients in all of the recipes were mostly those foods.
And, in small coup for the New Jersey economy and local food, Princeton University switched from an imported brand to Severino Pasta, of Collingswood and Westmont, NJ, after discovering it existence and quality through its work with the Garden State on Your Plate program.

Collaboration/cooperation. Deepening the bonds between the schools, the community and the farmers was both linchpin and sleeper hit of this project. We brought farmers into schools, and children to farms and to restaurant kitchens for field trips. We connected chefs to chefs, chefs to teachers, chefs to contract food service employees, farmers to parents, a politician to students – people to each other.
Farmer Jess Niederer of Chickadee Creek Farm in Pennington spoke at the Community Park Elementary appearance of Congressman Rush Holt, who used the Garden State On Your Plate program as backdrop to his own announcement of farm-to-school funding in the Healthy, Hunger- Free Kids Act.

Institutional change. The tasting program has put into motion several advances. Our four participating chefs are ready to take next steps.

As a result of this farm to school project, several of the 15 chefs at Princeton University, led by Stu Orefice, dining services director, signed on to the Let’s Move Chefs into Schools campaign, an Obama administration program that fights childhood obesity, and Chef Orefice persuaded Chartwells, the food service purveyor for the schools, to allow a guest chef to cook a meal for one of the schools.

Alex Levine, chef at Whole Earth Center, says he found a routine with the tastings and he would like to expand them to include the remaining two schools and bring the original schools’ tastings “to the next level.”

Chef Gary Giberson of Sustainable Fare at the Lawrenceville School, is interested in exploring middle school cooking class opportunities – and the principal at Princeton’s John Witherspoon Middle School is enthusiastic too.

And Chris Albrecht, executive chef at Eno Terra and also a member of Let’s Move Chefs into Schools, is ready to teach the finer points of cuisine to employees of the current food service purveyor – and they are ready to learn.

Through the tastings project, we connected to Maurie Cohen, a professor of environmental science at NJIT, and through him and his research into sustainable consumption, began building bridges to the middle school. That connection resulted in an end-of-school lunch in 2011 hosted by Chef Albrecht at Eno Terra, attended by Jason Burr, principal at John Witherspoon Middle School, Chef Orefice of Princeton University, Ms. McManus and Ms. Cook, where we discussed opportunities for teaching food literacy classes (cooking, gardening, media literacy, etc.) in the school’s unused teaching kitchens. Those discussions have resulted in a beginning collaboration between Cherry Sprague, science supervisor of Princeton Public Schools, and the PSGC to create that very program – first as an after-school offering that would ideally grow into an elective for all middle school students.

Also, through the tastings, a small group of food professionals in town has begun to discuss the possibility of creating a community kitchen and cooking school – a kind of nucleus for the good food movement.

Further, we leveraged the success of the RWJF program to request and receive a round of funding to adapt the program to the YMCA-Princeton Young Achievers program for at-risk elementary students — to great success. In that iteration, we picked up four more Princeton chefs (Linda Twining, of Twin Hens Pot Pies, Scott Anderson of elements Restaurant, Craig Shelton of Americana Hospitality Group and Aeon Hospitality Holdings, Rick Piancone of Princeton University); and four more farmers: Chris Turse of Doublebrook Farm in Hopewell, Mike Rassweiller of North Slope Farm in Lambertville, Fred Bowers of Princeton Soil Institute and Pier Guidi of Bamboo Hollow Apiaries in Hillsborough.

Communications. A crucial factor in the farm to school project was telling parents, children, teachers and staff what to expect. We informed stakeholders in myriad ways, including short videos featuring the chef, the farmer, the farm, the produce and the recipe that were shown in advance of the tastings; an information sheet that included the recipe and facts about the featured produce; whimsical posters featuring fun facts to know that decorated the cafeteria and public areas of the school; other posters that included vocabulary words that children might use to describe flavor and texture of the featured produce; the psgcoop.org website itself, where videos and short reports were gathered; and outreach to local newspapers that resulted in several stories throughout the year on the project.

We are optimistic that our remaining goals will be met. The administration has been present and enthusiastic for the tastings, and the tastings program has opened doors with the administration and the food service purveyor. A representative of the NJ Department of Agriculture was present for the Rush Holt event at Community Park Elementary School, and the New Jersey Secretary of Agriculture contributed the introduction to our manual, so the program has been noticed. As our manual and its resources are disseminated online and we get the word out to our respective communities, we expect more community building farther afield. And though the PRS administration has not yet stepped up to lead the nation in food-based education, its members spoke favorably about the program during interviews for the manual, so there is movement forward.

The RWJF project is one that illustrates the ripple effect of a stone tossed into a pool. Close-in, it helped to clarify the path forward for our organization: Of course it makes sense to use good, fresh food as the tool for bringing the community together, to the schools, to build a more robust future for the children. That approach has become the heart of our work.