Food Education Curriculum Serves Up Sensory Lessons
Author: Eve Pranis
Originally published by

Food For Life Kids
Students at Hampstead Hill Academy share their burgeoning food knowledge with the community at their banquet.

When teachers at Hampstead Hill Academy in Baltimore, MD, retrieve their students from Ariel Demas’ Food for Life class, they’re met with an enthusiastic crowd eager to dish out nutritional and cultural facts they learned, along with samples of the whole-food dishes they made. And that’s no small thing. “One of my goals is to help dispel the perception that healthy food is scary and tastes weird,” says Ariel. And she’s not just taking about the students’ responses.

Ariel’s program is based on a year-long, award-winning curriculum called Food is Elementary. It features teaching tools, lessons, and recipes to help educators manage multicultural, cooperative cooking sessions and engage students’ senses in learning about foods and nutrition. The basic equipment it recommends can be used in any classroom – even those without sinks.

Kevin Reid, a school volunteer in Chicago, IL, uses the same curriculum with a bilingual third grade class. He admits that he came into the program as a bit of a skeptic. “I really had doubts,” he admits. “As good as the curriculum sounded, I assumed that kids, deep down, just don’t like vegetables. He’s changed his tune. Maybe it was from watching students devour raw Brussels sprouts! “When we explored edible plant part categories, we looked at those cool leaves wrapped up in tight balls,” explains Kevin. That inspired students to want to taste them. “Most of the kids are Mexican and had never seen them before, so they had no preconceptions,” he adds. “Their first real hint was my expectation that they just might love them.”

Laying the Groundwork: Digging into Edibles
The first half of the year-long curriculum finds students handling and tasting fresh foods that represent different plant parts and food groups (e.g., grains, fruits), looking closely at labels, exploring the aesthetics of food, and learning about what makes foods – and people – tick.

Food For Life KidsAnd sensory it is. A lesson on fat begins with students plunging their hands into butter. They learn that fat feels sticky, connect that to how it acts in our arteries, and then act like scientists as they “feel” milk samples and try to detect butterfat levels.

“Memorizing what vitamins do what just doesn’t make it,” says Kevin. But keying into color codes does. He explains that one lesson helps students link vitamins to different color foods (red, green, yellow, orange) and to general personal outcomes (such as good eyes or skin). Next, students list and draw foods representing each color; they add others throughout the year. Students in Ariel’s classes even color-code their notes. The main message? Eat a rainbow of colors.

Another of Kevin’s lessons invites students to examine, describe, taste, and write about different fruits, legumes, or whole grain breads. But the youngsters’ favorite just might be the art project where they get to play with their food! First they explore the colors and textures of different items. As they cut and arrange them on white paper plates, whimsical creations emerge. But it’s not just about appreciating the beauty of foods; each artist must identify the vitamins in each item and its place on the food pyramid. Before eating their works, children draw or photograph them, admire one another’s pieces, and explain what they were thinking as they designed their own.

Cooking Across Cultures
Armed with a basic understanding and growing appreciation of food and nutrition, students spend the second semester cooking cuisine of other cultures. As they prepare each dish, they listen to music from the continent and learn something about the culture that created the recipe.

“The Indian dahl wasn’t a huge favorite, but tabouli was,” says Ariel. Red beans and rice also ranked high. Who would imagine that a tofu vegetable stir-fry would draw applause from kids? Using chopsticks was a real motivator for that meal, she explains. She eventually hopes to persuade the food service to include some of the same recipes on the lunchroom menu.

Did you know?
A U.C.L.A. study in a low-income neighborhood found that adding a salad bar to the cafeteria, at which students could choose their own fruits and vegetables, increased produce consumption at lunch by 40 percent.

Coaxing Converts
No “yuck” allowed is one of the cardinal rules in Ariel’s class. “I never pressure kids to try anything; but when the others do, they tend to get curious and step up.” She also avoids pushing a heavy nutrition message, opting instead to engage students’ hands and taste buds. “It’s more important to get kids thinking about what they’re tasting and eating, where it comes from, and what they do and don’t like,” says Ariel.

It’s not just the students who need enticing. Last year, Ariel invited the cafeteria staff to attend some Food for Life classes and try new dishes along with the kids. As they sampled the fare and encouraged students to keep open minds, they began to buy into the concept. Meanwhile, parents receive a newsletter filled with students’ work, recipes, and comments about what they’ve been cooking. Some attend community dinners prepared by the school’s culinary arts club. This year, parents and students can sign up to work together to prepare a weekly snack. (The recipe goes home with classmates.)

“Our principal is a great support,” says Ariel. “He wants to see kids – and the staff – healthy and ready to learn.” With that in mind, he has invited Ariel to cater all staff meetings so teachers can become more familiar with whole foods and model healthful eating for their students.

How Food Education Supports Standards
Food For Life KidsKevin has no question that the food education project supports state curriculum standards across disciplines. But to help teachers, administrators, and potential funders “get” it, he created a document that made the links explicit. Here’s a sample activity he describes as meeting one of the geography standards: “In a lesson on whole grains, children create a ‘Grain Map of the World,’ gluing actual grains onto a map to show where each one originated,” writes Kevin. “The children learn about growing conditions in different parts of the world. They also learn about trade by seeing, for instance, that corn from Central America became popular in Italy as polenta, or that millet from China became a staple in western Africa.”

How They Grow
“Beyond getting an introduction to new foods and cooking techniques, students gain a new way of looking at food: how it connects to cultures, its beauty, and the fun we can have preparing it,” says Kevin. He adds that as food themes are integrated into other subjects, the students see how their learning relates to real life.

Perhaps less tangible are the benefits that accrue when students are treated as responsible, able learners. For example, they use adult-size knives to cut vegetables -- but not without some instruction. Even before students hold a knife, Kevin asks them to draw and label one (blade, handle, sharp and dull sides). Then he shows them how to hold the knife and food (with a “claw grip” to keep the joints vertical). “The students appreciate that they are trusted to use a serious and powerful tool that I tell them will enable them to eat good foods,” explains Kevin.

“The world of food is opening up for these kids, most of whom are from very poor families,” says Ariel. “Because it’s so sensory-based, the kids remember what they’ve explored and eaten. In fact, I hear stories from parents whose youngsters have requested foods we’ve tasted.” At least one of her students reported that his family switched from white to whole-grain bread.

But she admits that it’s not always a quick turnaround. “The kids may read labels now and get grossed out with the ingredients, but still choose to buy the items.” The lesson on fats, she adds, hasn’t precluded youngsters from wanting McDonalds. But little changes are apparent and they’re beginning to influence family behavior.

To order the Food is Elementary curriculum, contact the Food Studies Institute

Food For Life Kids © 2004 National Gardening Association,