Project-Based Learning (PBL)

Cultivating Minds: Food-Related Curricula Take Root Nationwide

Nearly 300 public schools in twenty states teach with farms or gardens.

November 5, 2008

Planting a Future:

Seamus plants seeds in the Intervale, an urban farm in Burlington, Vermont, as part of the Sustainable Schools Project.

Courtesy of Jennifer Cirillo

When a mysterious vegetable growing in the garden at Clara Barton School, in Rochester, New York, was ready for harvest this fall, a group of students pulled it from the ground. As they brushed off the dirt, the first, second, and third graders demanded to know the name of the strange, burgundy-colored root.

Janet McDonald, who runs the garden through a community organization called Rochester Roots, startled them with the news that the long, narrow spindle was a carrot. The children protested loudly, "Carrots are orange, not purple!" So McDonald cut it into pieces and asked them to try it. As they chewed, a consensus grew: It did taste like a carrot.

As the students marveled at the fact that carrots come in different colors, McDonald explained that the purple one was an heirloom variety that originated in the Middle East. Upon returning to class a half hour later, the students bombarded their teacher with queries about what had happened in the garden.

"When you integrate all of the senses, then the students start to ask questions," McDonald explains. "We say, 'Smell this, taste this, look at this.' And then they ask, 'Why?' And then we respond, 'Let's look in this book and see if we can find the answer.' Kids need a tactile relationship with the environment, and we provide that tactile info, which then can open the mind."

Rochester Roots is one of many public school programs nationwide that uses food as a pathway to learning. The concept, popularized by chef Alice Waters's Edible Schoolyard and the Community Food Security Coalition's Farm to School programs, has been quietly gaining momentum over the past decade. As Americans sharpen their focus on education, health, and climate change, more states and school districts are embracing food-related curricula to teach topics as varied as chemistry, nutrition, and environmentalism. Many believe the vegetable's time as a teaching tool has finally come.

Growing Interest

In the broadest sense, food-related curricula are based on the idea that we should teach children to make connections between people, land, food, and their community. Eighteen states have adopted Farm to School legislation, which connects local farms with public schools and clears the way for teaching materials concerning agriculture, nutrition, and sustainability. Vermont and a few others have also adopted place-based-learning standards that dovetail with educational programs in school gardens and farms. More policies are pending.

Cooking up Solutions:

Slow Food 2008 panelists discuss the state of school nutrition, how edible education works, and what can be done to make a difference in feeding our future leaders.

Credit: Shari Wargo

"There's a very big nationwide movement," says Zenobia Barlow, executive director of the Center for Ecoliteracy, which produces free curriculum guides and resources on topics related to food and agriculture. "Disparate groups are now beginning to see the points of commonality in their efforts. This movement is at a convergence. There's the medical concern, the nutritional concern, sustainable agriculture, food systems. It's a creative moment. We are all influencing one another."

A growing interest in food-related curricula led to the founding of the Farm-Based Education Association in 2006. The group has identified nearly 300 garden- or farm-based programs in schools and community-based organizations nationwide. "The formation of the Farm-Based Education Association was a real sign that this is a huge movement, not just some quirky little thing that they're doing in places such as Vermont and California," says Jen Cirillo, director of professional development at Shelburne Farms, which runs Vermont's Sustainable Schools Project. "People are realizing that kids are eating a lot of foods in school, that their attitudes and behaviors toward food are formed there."

Food-related lesson plans and programs build on the same basic themes, but the method and mode of delivering lessons varies. For example, Shelburne Farms's Sustainable Schools Project uses animal husbandry to teach lessons about life cycles, but it also helps encourage students to read. "There are lots of standards opportunities, and it is easy to make purposeful curriculum connections," says Cirillo. "There are so many natural connections for teachers to make, and when they see their kids engaged, they know they've hit on it."

Cirillo frequently tells the story of how a chicken transformed a Burlington elementary school classroom into, she says, "a learning community." A few of the students, she explains, were Somali Bantu refugees who, because they were shy and had never attended school before, hadn't really talked much in class. "But when my coworker brought in a chicken, they came alive," Cirillo says. "The students had taken care of chickens in the refugee camps, and they told their classmates a story about how a lion had once come and eaten some chickens from their camp in the middle of the night.

"The kids who had not been interested in school became very interested, and the kids who were very shy and not really communicating with other kids suddenly became the stars of their classroom," she adds. "And the teacher brought in all of these books on chickens, and suddenly everyone's reading and comparing what they know about chickens."

Susan Willis, a retired teacher and a Rochester Roots volunteer, says the Clara Barton School's garden has had a similar effect. "I've taught for years and years from a textbook, and I've never seen anything like this," she notes. "In the garden, a kid is willing to try something new. There's also the pride and the self-esteem the kids develop and the fact that they helped plant it and grow it, and then they can take it home to their family."

Overcoming Barriers

Though the benefits of food-related curricula are obvious to practitioners, proponents, and state legislators, their success has yet to grab national attention. Barriers persist, from basic awareness to funding.

On Eating Well:

Chef Alice Waters, an advocate for edible education, talks at the Slow Food conference about how to improve the food served in elementary school cafeterias.

Credit: Shari Wargo

"We thought the only confusion would be that people would say, 'Oh, you're an agriculture-training program,'" says Brooke Redmond, executive director of the Farm-Based Education Association. "But actually, the classes in which these kinds of lessons are happening every day are isolated. And although those teachers know that this work is powerful, there's a whole part of the country that could have this opportunity for their students, but they doesn't know it exists or that they could partner with different organizations."

Once aware of these programs, educators may struggle to integrate gardens and farms into classroom lesson plans. "You can really teach the standards you need to teach using these tools, but it requires time, and it's not a skill set that all teachers have," notes Dana Hudson, farm-to-school coordinator of Vermont Food Education Every Day (FEED) and a regional representative of the Farm to School program. "They're usually thrilled to have it, but they don't always have the opportunity to see how it fits together." The good news is that some sample food curricula is available for free online. (See "Planting the Seeds: Resources for Teaching About Food" below.)

Sticking a Fork in It:

Josh Viertel, president of Slow Food USA, says allowing fast food corporations to vie for contracts in school cafeterias sets a dangerous precedent.

Credit: Shari Wargo

Funding is also problematic. The cost of getting an independent school garden up and running can top $100,000, plus the cost of ongoing maintenance. Though some farm-based programs are free, other can charge fees that start at about $7 per child. Transportation costs can also add to the cost of participating in these programs. However, proponents argue that the price of not implementing food-related curricula will be far greater in the long run. "We either spend the money up front, or we spend it on the back end, in terms of the costs to health care and the planet," says Waters, whose Edible Schoolyard program operates at schools in Berkeley, California, and in New Orleans.

"We're talking about a lot more than food here," Waters says. "It can't just be upgraded food in the cafeteria. That's another Band-Aid. It can't just be taking Coke machines out of the schools, because then kids will bring sodas in their backpacks. We will never solve the problem of health or the environment if we don't bring students into a new relationship with food and nature." Waters recently finished writing a book, The Edible Schoolyard, in which she explains the benefits of what she calls "eco-gastrology."

Josh Viertel, president of Slow Food USA, adds that by allowing fast food corporations to vie for contracts in school cafeterias -- the only place on campus that many students interact with food -- educators are setting a dangerous precedent. "We're giving away the right to teach our students to the most appealing bidder right now, and not the best teacher," Viertel says. "And if we don't teach them what eating is, where food comes from, what health is about, and what it is to gather around the table, someone else is going to do it, and it's going to be someone who stands to make a profit. Instead, we should teach kids about what's good for them, what's good for the environment, and what's good for the people who are growing it."

Moving Forward

The Farm-Based Education Association and Farm to School are organizing national and regional networks to discuss federal policy proposals and resource sharing. The FBEA is also conducting a national survey of farm-based education programs.

"I don't think we're all on same page yet, and it's not because we don't agree," says the Farm-Based Education Association's Brooke Redmond. "It's because it's too soon in the movement to assume that everyone knows what everyone else is talking about."

Proponents haven't even settled on a term for food-related curriculum; some call it edible education, while others label it farm-based education. But Redmond adds that "where we all meet is that we're interested in cultivating mindful citizens, stewards of the land, healthy children, sustainable food systems, and an engaged population."

Waters believes leadership must come from the top. "We need the president of the United States to say that we need to teach our children about food and the consequences of their choices," Waters told an audience gathered at the August 2008 Slow Food Nation conference. "We have to go in with a curriculum and teach children and integrate food into it, and every child participates in the program, because there's no other way." Waters says she has spoken with Barack Obama's representatives about the issue. (Neither presidential campaign responded to requests for comment on this story.)

Some farm-based educators would welcome the federal support, as long as any policy put in place is flexible enough to accommodate the needs of different states. "Let's have a call to arms, but what a national policy looks like has to be thoughtful in how it's crafted so that people can figure out a way that best works for them," says Vermont FEED's Dana Hudson. "This is especially important in food-related education, because what grows and when in California is different from what grows and when in New York and Minnesota. I think we should look at incentives, teacher training, and access to resources for these programs."

Meanwhile, U.S. legislators continue to push for higher nutrition and food standards in cafeterias. The most recent federal farm bill, passed in May, included some grant funding directed at school gardens and food-related education. The Childhood Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Bill, scheduled for a vote in 2009, includes some discussion of a nutrition curriculum for schools. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is holding public meetings for input on the reauthorization bill.

Do these pieces of legislation go far enough? "No," Hudson says. "But it paves the way. We're working within the policies that we have in order to set the stage for these larger efforts to happen and to get some funding for it. Billions of dollars go into the farm bill, and only a miniscule amount goes into these programs, but it's a start."

Want to use food-related curricula in your classroom? Here are some online resources to get you started:

The Center for Ecoliteracy's Rethinking School Lunch Program: This free online guide provides essays, Q&As, models, and other information; topics include food policy, curriculum integration, and facilities design. The center also published a book of sample curricula, broken down by grade level, called Big Ideas.

Farm-Based Education Association: The organization's Web site serves as a clearinghouse for numerous food- and agriculture-related educational resources, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agriculture in the Classroom site. The organization is developing a searchable database of curriculum, student activities, and other resources culled from successful programs across the country.

The Food Project's Toolbox: This repository contains resources for teaching K-12 students about sustainable agriculture and the food system.

The National Gardening Association's This site provides details on funding, developing, and teaching in a school garden.

Shelburne Farms's Sustainable Schools Project: This group developed the free, downloadable Food Foundations curriculum for kindergartners and Food Cycles in Our Community materials for first graders. These curricula ask students to investigate where their food comes from. Experiential learning and role-playing activities teach kids to make smarter food choices and how those choices affect the environment and animal life cycles. Lessons for older students are coming soon.

-- BY

Bernice Yeung is a contributing writer and editor for Edutopia.

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