At one table, a group of 5th-graders is looking up the ingredients for stuffed acorn squash by scanning codes into classroom iPods. At another, the students are reading about the history of acorn squash and other Native American foods.
With Thanksgiving less than two weeks away, it’s the perfect lesson for Beth Reed’s 5th-grade wellness class at the Brooklyn Arbor School in Williamsburg.
But this is no desk-bound exercise. In another part of the classroom, a group of students is busy draining cans of beans and corn, while others begin chopping sage and thyme from the classroom’s own herb garden.
Over the course of the period, each group will rotate through all the work stations, and by the end of the class they’ll all have had a hand in cooking — and eating — a slice of baked acorn topped with quinoa, beans and corn and seasoned with sage and thyme.
For Reed, there’s no better way to introduce students to healthy eating. “I’ve always had a passion for food,” says Reed. “We’re in charge of our health, and food is a great way to start.”
Reed is one of the founding members of Brooklyn Arbor, which opened in 2012 as a magnet school with a focus on global and ethical studies. Money for the groceries used in the wellness program is raised through the Parent Association, grants and a portion of the sales from Farmigo, a community online farmers’ market where families and staff can purchase fresh produce to be delivered weekly to the school. Reed bought a portable, two-burner stove for $70 using her Teacher’s Choice allotment.
Reed has designed her own curriculum aligned with the school’s mission with units on gardening, composting, the school’s wellness committee and “mission nutrition,” in which her students learn to cook a healthy dish using local ingredients from area greenmarkets.
“Wellness is not just about cooking and exercise,” she says. “It’s also about taking care of the planet.”
Brooklyn Arbor is a zero-waste school that composts everything, Reed points out. During the cold months, tending the school’s garden becomes an opportunity for the class to rake leaves and clean up debris and to observe how the garden adapts to the change in season.
Laura Beck, a 4th-grade social studies teacher and the school’s chapter leader, says students are making connections in their other classes as a result of Reed’s work.
“Students can talk about Native Americans and the foods they ate,” says Beck. “Beth introduces students to foods around the world and discusses making healthy and ethical choices in the food you buy.”
It’s a winning approach, as far as her students are concerned. “I like that we get to try new foods,” says Kaelah, age 10, as she chops sage. “That’s learning, too.” For Bryana, another 5th-grader, Reed’s class is special. “I like that everyone is cooking — and the ingredients are on the board so we don’t forget,” she says.
Reed adapts her program for the early grades at the pre-K–5 school. The younger students raved about the rainbow smoothie they made in class — composed of strawberries, blueberries, oranges, bananas and kale — and about the pumpkin hummus and baked apples.
“We get positive feedback when students bring a recipe home,” says Reed. That’s led to a family cooking class once a month and the creation of two class cookbooks with favorite recipes.
When Reed noticed her 3rd-graders liked spicy chips — a brand loaded with additives — she introduced them to kale chips with chili powder.
“I’m always trying to combat junk food,” says Reed, who is also a mentor in the Department of Education’s Office of School Wellness. A video she made with one class extols the virtues of citrus water over sugary sodas.
At home after a long day at school, she’ll relax the best way she knows how — by cooking.
“It’s a nice de-stresser,” she says.