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The Happy Eating Place: How Elementary Students Can Run Their Own Business

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The menu changes every time they open, and specialties range from turkey pozole to hearty fish chowder, quinoa salad to broccoli pasta, and blueberry scones to cheesy pigs-in-blankets. They use only organic, low-sugar ingredients and sustainably-raised meats or vegetarian alternatives. But this is not a fancy, five-star restaurant. It's an elementary school, and all the chefs are fourth and fifth graders.

Anne Malamud’s 4/5 class at Mills College Children's School, the laboratory school for the School of Education at Mills College in Oakland, California, is learning how to run a successful business and to make a difference in their own community. Calling their entrepreneurial venture the Happy Eating Place (HEP), the students originally set out just to prepare healthy snacks on campus and raise money for a yet-to-be determined nonprofit organization, but Malamud saw the opportunity for a service learning initiative with broader goals that would include social justice issues within our society. Now in its second year of operation, the HEP's mission has grown to include educating others about nutrition, the importance of sustainable farming, and the roots of hunger in America. This has included writing pamphlets, giving talks, and creating a presentation.

Service learning projects can be developed at any grade level. It may require extra work when teachers alter their plans to integrate student-driven, hands-on lessons in their math, writing, social studies, and science curricula, but that work pays dividends in student engagement. Here are five easy steps to start a service learning business model in your classroom.

1. Find an Entry Point That Excites Students

Fresh off a nutrition unit where they learned about digestion in the human body and picked up a few simple, healthy recipes, the class became enthusiastic about the idea of using food as a basis for a service learning project. Malamud saw an opportunity to teach basic economics in the context of running a business, and brought in a financial planner (one of her parents) to explain about initial investments, gross and net profits, and how to price items and predict sales.

2. Give Every Student a Stake in the Project

In order to run a successful classroom business, every student needs to have a job -- cooks, servers, cashier, accountant, marketing team, even dishwasher. A range of jobs can accommodate the range of abilities in the group. Artists who like to draw and make posters are great on the marketing team, those who like to move around can make great servers, and those who like to cook can cook! Students learn that every job is important, and they see the interconnectedness of each job. They are more invested in the project, and more excited about working together toward a common goal.

Girl whisking flour in a silver bowl
In the mix.

3. Incorporate Daily Curriculum into Business Lessons

While cooking, students practice multiplying and dividing fractions to increase and decrease their recipes. To drum up interest in their healthy bake sales, the marketing team writes and maintains a blog and visits other classrooms to talk about their mission. This year, HEP expanded to include a restaurant, where students served a four-course meal to families and staff, researching recipes related to their current social studies unit (i.e. Old World vs. New World foods). Students are more engaged and excited about doing class assignments when they relate to their business model.

4. Look Beyond the Classroom

Since HEP is centered on a cooking model and the class had already studied a unit on nutrition, Malamud had an idea to incorporate a particular service learning component within their business project. She asked her students, "What happens when people don't have access to good nutrition?" To answer the question, she showed a documentary called A Place at the Table about hunger in America, organized a field trip to a local sustainable farm, and set up a volunteer partnership with the Alameda County Community Food Bank. Students decided that they wanted all of their HEP profits to go to the Food Bank, and over the course of two years, they've donated close to $1,000 to that cause. And because each dollar raised for the Food Bank has the buying power of four dollars, students can use the Food Bank’s online shopping cart to see just how much their donation is buying.

5. Let Them Make Mistakes

After their first few initial successes, students voted to make organic fruit smoothies for one dollar each at their next bake sale. Malamud knew that the ingredients would be expensive, but she let the students learn their own lesson and lose money on the sale, prompting the team to think about whether they could serve smaller portions or charge more. Another time, a measuring error resulted in salty scones, and the marketing team went class to class talking to their fellow classmates about the error and rebuilding trust in their product. In their second year as a business, HEP added a new job -- a Satisfaction Manager who interviews customers after each sale so that the team can discuss what worked well and what they might do differently next time. Sometimes, this requires changing the recipe, increasing advertising, or surveying their clientele. Even if the only solution is to take an item off the menu, the students learn an important business lesson.

Feeding friends, raising funds.
Feeding friends, raising funds.

The Happy Eating Place is an unusual leadership opportunity for fourth and fifth graders, and perhaps that is the reason for its success. Even young elementary students can excel when given the hands-on experience of running a business, and also seeing how they can effect bigger change in the world.

Please tell us about any service learning or student-driven nutrition projects at your school.

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Crystal Lucas's picture

Ms. Malamud,
What a wonderful way for your students to integrate the curriculum for your students, so that they can learn the essential curriculum! They are clearly engaged in learning and motivated by your approach.
I am a grade 5 teacher at a MicroSociety School, which is a school that has ventures that are a reflection of a real city. Every Wednesday between 1:25 p.m. until 2:25 p.m. students work in their ventures, which are headed by a CEO, CIO, and COO, who are elected by the students. Our society is called "Wonderland" consist of some of the following ventures: Wonderland Court, Wonderland Bank, Wonderland City Council, our cooking venture- Le Cordon Blue, and Wee Gazette - our newspaper etc. The leaders of each venture receive 15 Wonderbucks as a salary and other employees received 10 Wonderbucks. On Market Days, each venture is expected to prepare products that they will sell in return for Wonderbucks. On Market Nights, parents and the community can purchase Wonderbucks on par (one Wonderbuck cost $1 to purchased at Wonderland Bank). The event is a wonderful fundraiser for the school. Students learn very quickly that if they do not work, then they will not get paid. Also, if they break the law they risk being summoned to court by a bailiff, and being sentenced if they are found guilty of breaking a law in Wonderland. In some cases, students lose their jobs and have to go to the unemployment office, which is located in The City Council's Office in order to apply for a new job. They soon that their actions have consequences. The life lessons that students learn are invaluable.

Thank you so much to you and your students for sharing. The lessons that your students are learning are invaluable and will remain with them for the rest of their lives.
Crystal Lucas

MWilson's picture

I really appreciate your thoughtful writing on service learning. I work at an independent elementary school and we strive to teach our kids about the importance of community service and volunteerism. Our 5th graders are all required to participate in a service learning project as part of their final year at the school. As an administrator, I have the privilege of working with a handful of these students who serve on our Community Development Committee (CDC). This year, the students' primary focus has been 1) working with the younger classes to bring donated food to a food bank and 2) improving the school's lost and found. At the beginning of the year, adult members of the CDC accompanied our 5th grade students to the food bank where one of the head volunteers explained how their program operates. They were able to see the types of food that they need donated and then passed this information on to the rest of the school. Every 2 weeks, one or two of our students will lead a younger class to the food bank where the kids get to hand over their donations to the volunteers on site. It is truly a site to behold and reminds the students about their ability to help others in need.
For the lost and found project, our 5th graders wanted to create lunchtime skits about the importance of labeling lunchboxes. This was a fully collaborative process where the kids wrote a script, procured several hundred bag tags, and performed in front of the rest of the school. In addition, each CDC adult member is matched with one of the students for a weekly trip to one of two lost and found sites where labeled items are returned, clothing is neatly folded, and miscellaneous items (like library books ?) are brought back to teachers. For those items that never find their owner, the 5th graders choose a local charity that accepts used children's clothing and shoes.
These service learning projects empower our students with a sense of purpose and create a deeper understanding of their ability to enact change in their community. I hope more schools and more educators will embrace this model in the future!

Michelle Wilson, Development Specialist, University Child Development School, Seattle, WA

access_granted's picture

I really enjoyed reading this blog about project-based learning. Reading the points, it appears as if the PBL model is a standard of how a classroom room can be ran. I teach 8th grade math and half of the battle is entry point that excites the students of the content. I use small activities to engage the students and incorporate mathematics, but I would love to implement a bigger project like the ones discussed here. The point about the students have a stake in the project is the same as the students having input on the classroom environment, helping manage the everyday routine, and assign duties. I can see the connection between PBL and the standard for the classroom; I'm curious what would be the beginning stages for developing PBL culture in a classroom or school?

Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Design/Broadcast Media teacher

Hello access_granted! I think the best way to start building a culture of PBL in a classroom or school is to take the big first step of developing a PBL unit for your students. Just one (baby steps) can help other teachers and admin see its value, which can lead to conversations about PBL, which can lead to more teachers giving it a try. If you work in a dept that might be open to PBL, it helps to build that first PBL unit with a colleague or two. Lots of great resources here: https://www.edutopia.org/project-based-learning and here: https://www.bie.org/

Don Doehla, MA, NBCT's picture
Don Doehla, MA, NBCT
2015 California Language Teacher of the Year, Co-Director Berkeley WL Project at UC Berkeley Language Center

I agree with Laura. I also recommend a great book in addition to the links Laura has mentioned. Check out Suzie Boss' book Setting the Standard for PBL. She has included example projects as well as explaining all the elements of PBL. Very worth picking up a copy!

diglitclassjh's picture

Great post! As a current college student with aspirations to teach elementary and/or middle school children, this was a great read. I really like how this approach allows the students to get hands-on with the project. With this approach students can learn first-hand how to do something without being lectured about it for a few hours. Sometimes living the experience can be more successful than listening to someone talk about it. Again, great post!

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