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In the Garden, In the Kitchen, In the Classroom




Sometimes, you just have to convince a child to try something new. She might actually like it.
Just ask Chef Andrew Benson. A few years back, Benson tried to convince one sixth grade student at the Harlem Children's Zone Promise Academycharter school in New York to eat some broccoli. But the youngster had never tried the vegetable, and she didn’t seem like she wanted to now.
Eventually, the chef convinced her. “She came back for four more servings after that,” he recalls to The Inside Track.
Benson is executive chef for the Harlem Children's Zone (HCZ) and co-creator of the Educated Eaters Project, an ambitious program that teaches kids about healthy eating from preschool until the day of their high school graduation. He’s charged with serving healthy food to 1,900 or so students at HCZ’s Promise Academy charter schools, and works alongside Mia Littlejohn, the program’s garden and nutrition instructor, to educate students of all ages— along with parents and teachers — about healthy eating.

The project started about six years ago when HCZ opened the first Promise Academy campus in Harlem. There are two schools at three locations — running from kindergarden through high school — serving students in Harlem, and the importance of good nutrition is a key education component.

As a charter, the schools have complete control over what is served (as long as it meets federal nutrition guidelines), and Benson sticks to all healthy ingredients. Nearly all the food is made from scratch and much of it is sourced from local farmers. No outside food is allowed — not even cupcakes on birthdays.
Students not only are given a nutritious breakfast and lunch, they also have the opportunity to take part in cooking classes to teach them how to make healthy meals (which parents can also take) and get hands-on experience in their school’s garden, where they learn the basics about where food comes from. The project also works with the schools to provide nutrition curricula, with elementary students learning about the importance of trying new, healthy food while high schoolers are taught about the food system and food marketing.
Ideally, students remain plugged into HCZ’s extensive network of services, so they are given the benefit of the full curriculum. The Educated Eaters Project also collaborates with HCZ’s early childhood education and after-school programs. HCZ also provides programs that encourage physical fitness through its Healthy Living Initiative, and partners with The Harlem Children's Health Project, which offers basic medical and dental services to Promise Academy students.

Students work in a rooftop garden. | Photo courtesy the Educated Eaters Project.

Thus far, the project has been widely successful, and was even the focus of a 2005 story in The New York Times.
Interestingly enough, Benson and Littlejohn agree that persuading students to take part isn’t difficult; kids adapt to new things, and get even more interested when they work in the garden or learn how to cook meals. It’s the grown-ups that need convincing.
“Adults are actually harder to convince to make healthy choices,” Littlejohn says. “In that sense, we definitely have to tackle how do we get through and really transform the community mindset around food.”
Working with principals and administrators is key to making the program work, Benson says. Teachers and parents also must be brought on board, especially since the schools are located in a food desert, where access to fresh and healthy food is severely limited. Chef Benson works to teach the folks making the meals about the importance of healthy eating.
“It is definitely something that people are more and more willing to talk about and consider,” says Littlejohn. “Even for many of our kitchen staff, who are used to eating processed food, preparing fresh foods is an education. [We] really now see them evolving to a place where they are willing to try new foods.”
The project works hard to educate the community about the importance of developing a healthy relationship to food. They maintain a blog, where the day’s meals are posted, along with recipes and information about the program’s initiatives, including the gardens. But often, the kids themselves are the best ambassadors, Littlejohn says. 
“They kind of take ownership,” she says. “They really become sort of ambassadors for us in the schools…That’s incredibly valuable, just to have it coming from a student rather than just coming from us.”