Edible Schoolyard NYC Teaches Inner-City Kids to Mind Their Peas and Cukes

The backyard at Edible Schoolyard NYC

NYC&G: How did Edible Schoolyard NYC get started in New York?
Fernanda Niven, Edible Schoolyard NYC board member: John Lyons, our board chair, is on the boards of both the Chez Panisse Foundation in Berkeley and Pencil, an organization that places prominent people in schools as principal for a day. He himself was sent to PS 216 as principal and basically married the two organizations into a new stand-alone venture.

Is Alice Waters involved?
Alice is the mothership. Edible Schoolyard is her brainchild, and we look to her for answers and inspiration. But we are completely distinct from her organizations in San Francisco.

What drew you to participate?
I had seen a 60 Minutes piece on the Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley and found it fascinating and amazing. I’m interested in our food system overall and how people eat. A friend happened to be on the Edible Schoolyard NYC board, and I jumped at the chance to join.

Inside the greenhouse

Which schools are involved?
PS 7 in East Harlem and PS 216 in Gravesend, Brooklyn. Right now we’re focusing on building the roof garden at PS 7, which is also going to have a kitchen classroom.

What is an Edible education? 
We teach children about food and the current food system and how to make better choices for themselves. Hopefully, it will become a part of solving the broken food system in America, which is our ultimate mission. Edible Schoolyard started by looking at how public schools feed their children and how children are often being fed very poorly at home. The idea is to build awareness in order to break the circle in which disadvantaged kids are getting the worst food. If children plant something themselves and watch it grow, they will try it and eat it. This relatively small act also brings them joy. Ideally these kids will benefit from many things, not just better nutrition.

Is the project organic?
Yes. The soil and the plants in the garden are organic, and we compost and don’t use pesticides. The children are taught how to plant, tend, and harvest vegetables and fruits in the garden, and then how to prepare a meal with their harvest. So there is both a garden component and a kitchen component.

Outdoor view of the school and greenhouse

What types of foods are they growing?
All kinds of things: lettuces, corn, strawberries, herbs, soybeans, and sorghum, as well as flowers, which aren’t for eating but are about beauty. We also have apple trees, and even chickens, at PS 216.

What are the kids learning? 
Growing and cooking food teaches kids different math, science, and language skills. The kids even participate in a farmers’ market, where they sell their vegetables to customers who pay whatever they can. It’s the same as music and other creative arts. You can teach virtually every subject in the garden and kitchen. It’s just a more innovative location for learning.

Do you involve their parents?
Yes. Parents do everything from making salad dressing to encouraging their children to try different foods. It has brought them closer to their kids. 

A version of this article appeared in the September 2014 issue of New York Cottages & Gardens with the headline: Planting the Seed.