Cooking by the numbers

A nourishing environment helps Bronx students learn math
Suzanne Popadin 1185

Teacher Megan Weaver lends a hand as three 5th-graders spoon out the ingredients
Miller Photography
Teacher Megan Weaver lends a hand as three 5th-graders spoon out the ingredients for tacos made of corn tortillas, butternut squash, back beans and yogurt sauce.

It’s time to enjoy a tasty taco.
Miller Photography
It’s time to enjoy a tasty taco.

The culmination of a recent lesson at PS 294 in the Bronx was making and eating healthy, vegetarian tacos. Hugo ate his taco in one big bite.

Asked if there was anything better than eating a taco he just made himself, the 5th-grader didn’t miss a beat. “There’s one thing better,” he offered. “Learning.”

“Our mission is to connect kids to healthy food through hands-on learning, a schoolwide culture of health and healthy school meals,” said FoodCorps service member Kelsey Kinderknecht.

The FoodCorps program at PS 294 was initiated and supported last year by Bronx Health REACH, which, since 1999, has worked to make health equality a reality in the South Bronx. It forges partnerships with community-based organizations, health care providers and social service agencies and provides technical support to schools implementing wellness programs. This year, Bronx Health REACH supports a FoodCorps program at PS 443 and oversaw the transfer of support at PS 294 to its community partner New Settlement Apartments. In all, it has programs in 50 schools.

At PS 294, in the Highbridge section of the Bronx, the FoodCorps program’s emphasis is on math. Kinderknecht works closely with teachers and reinforces concepts learned in the classroom by helping students understand numbers through real-world applications. The math curriculum is integrated with cooking in the fall and gardening in the spring, and every 3rd- to 5th-grade class has a FoodCorps lesson once a month.

FoodCorps service member Kelsey Kinderknecht gives a primer on measurement.
Miller Photography
FoodCorps service member Kelsey Kinderknecht gives a primer on measurement.
Hugo’s classmates learned that Lenape Indians once lived on the land where PS 294 now stands. They heard the legend of the “Three Sisters” — corn, beans and squash — and how companion planting helped those crops become staples for the Lenape. Then it was time to use their math skills.

Kinderknecht found out the students were struggling with word problems. So they do word problems with her: You are making a Three Sisters feast of 121 small tacos for 11 people. If everyone eats the same amount, how many tacos will each person get?

Then they excitedly measured out ingredients for tacos made of corn tortillas, butternut squash, black beans and yogurt sauce.

“A big focus in 4th and 5th grades is fractions, so when we’re thinking recipes we’re looking at those fractions and figuring out how to multiply or divide or add them,” depending on the recipe, said Kinderknecht.

Students in one group made the sauce, spooning a quarter cup of yogurt into a bowl and adding lime and spices. The recipe called for a 1/4 teaspoon of oregano. Using a 1/8 teaspoon, Presly added the spice. “How many does she need?” teacher Jenny O’Connor asked. “Two,” everyone answered.

Literacy coach Shannon Nilan, the school’s wellness coordinator, admitted she was skeptical at first. But more than a year into the program, she said, “Students are being exposed to healthier food options through math by learning how to make recipes that require them to apply their knowledge of measurement.” In the gardening curriculum, she said, “students figured out how many garlic bulbs could be planted in a bed, and then actually planted the bulbs, measuring how far apart and how deep they needed to be.”

They are looking at math “through a new lens,” Nilan said.

Kinderknecht knows some students don’t have the resources or capacity to change their eating habits outside school: Latrell, wearing a yogurt mustache, asked, “How are we supposed to get the butternut?”

But they “remember these activities,” Kinderknecht said. “It’s something for them to hold inside and pull out later in life. That’s the hope.”

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