It's schoolwork they get to eat
Program offers students lively lessons in cooking and making healthful
Originally published in The Baltimore Sun
By Rob Kasper
January 18, 2006
One afternoon, a group of middle-schoolers at the Stadium School in Waverly
huddled around plates of steaming vegetables. These were servings of North
African stew with harissa sauce, not the usual preteen fare.
Yet the students, eight girls and five boys, took generous portions of
the mixture of chickpeas, carrots, tomatoes, beans, sweet potatoes, green
peppers, onions, cinnamon, cumin and paprika. They were eating the results
of their classwork. They had spent the last 40 minutes or so chopping vegetables,
cooking and doing a little dancing.
Across town at the Hampstead Hill Academy,
next to Patterson Park, a similar hookup between youths and healthful foods occurred
some weeks later. Seventh-graders classified plates of fruit and vegetables
by their vitamin content, then proceeded to enjoy an in-class vitamin B
moment - a snack of almonds resting on brussels sprouts leaves. Vitamin
B, the students were told, could help soothe their nerves. Whether out
of nervousness or hunger, they devoured the leaves and nuts.
These scenes were from a class called Food for Life, a teaching approach
that contends students will warm up to healthful foods if they get a chance
to cook and eat them in a lively, hands-on classroom setting.
Started last year as a demonstration project funded by a grant from the
Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation and fueled by donations from Whole
Foods and other area merchants, it is being taught in two Baltimore City
schools and was taught at an after-school program last summer at the Franciscan
Its creator, Antonia Demas, said she hopes one day to have the program
available to all city schools.
Perhaps the most succinct appraisal of the program came from Alex Barry,
a sixth-grader at the Stadium School. Now a graduate of last fall's Food
for Life class, the 11-year-old credited it with broadening his culinary
outlook. Or as he put it, "I never use to eat greens or beans because
I thought they were nasty. Now I like them."
Demas, who has a graduate degree in nutrition from Cornell University,
is director of the Food Studies Institute in Trumansburg, N.Y. The institute,
she said, has trained some 350 teachers nationwide in nutrition education.
Among them are her daughter, Ariel Demas, who teaches the Food for Life
classes at Hampstead Hill, and Luke Seipp-Williams, who leads classes at
the Stadium School and last summer taught at the Franciscan Center.
Rather than taking a scolding, eat-your-spinach approach, this program
emphasizes the pleasures of cooking and eating, the elder Demas said. In
each of the program's structured 28 lessons, students are encouraged to
get acquainted with whole foods - such as lentils, greens and pomegranates
- that traditionally kids are not supposed to like.
This could be a tough sell and, as Seipp-Williams reminded his Stadium
School class one day, there is a "No Yuck" rule in place. You don't have
to like a dish, he told the class, but you can't disrespect it - that is
bad manners. The students abided by the admonition. Not everyone ate all
of the vegetable stew, but no one "dissed" the dish.
The food on the students' plates also can reinforce lessons learned in
other classes, the elder Demas said. At the Stadium School class, a map
of the world was whipped out as students found the country, Brazil, that
was the source of some black beans. At Hampstead Hill, students read
aloud the descriptions of various vitamin-laden fare and eagerly defined
food," a plant in its natural, unprocessed state. All the students kept
food journals, recording what they cooked, what they ate and what they
thought of it all.
There was time to experience the joy of cooking, too. The middle-schoolers
at Stadium School were an energetic bunch, and as they prepared their stew,
they danced for a few minutes to taped music.
Urged on by a parent, who was helping out, they cheered various ingredients.
They drew tickets from a bag to see which student won a sack of extra provisions.
At the end of the class at Hampstead Hill, the students were encouraged
to create food art. The girls constructed pretty faces; the boys went for
The program's approach to food seems to have spread beyond the classroom.
Kids have carried recipes home, as have parents who worked as classroom
aides. At the Stadium School, kids not in the class waited in the hallway
for a chance to sample the leftovers. At Hampstead Hill, a series of community
suppers featuring meals cooked by students for their parents and friends
is set to begin this month.
The class menu is vegetarian, in part, Demas said, for practical reasons.
Cooking meat, chicken or fish would require stoves instead of the mere
hot plates that classes use, and would pose safety concerns, she said.
Moreover, while many kids are already exceedingly familiar with burgers,
fries and chicken nuggets, they are not so well acquainted with nutritious
fruit and vegetables.
Administrators at Hampstead Hill and the Stadium School had good things
to say about the program. Matthew Hornbeck, the Hampstead Hill principal,
praised its "tolerant and accepting" attitude toward food. He also noted
that the program's push for nutrition had spilled over into faculty life.
The snacks in the teachers' lounge have grown greener.