Alison Cayne & Edible Schoolyard NYC
Cultivating healthy students and communities
Here's a fun fact for you: It can take up to 17 times for a child to accept new and unknown eats. That's rejected 16 servings of, say, Brussel sprouts or broccoli before he or she will heartily dig in. Which, if you're a parent, doesn't come as a surprise. Anyone with young ones knows the war of wills that can occur during a meal. For low-income families, that challenge is compounded even more—paying for those 16 servings to end up in the garbage is not an option.
So we're excited to partner with Alison Cayne, founder of New York cooking school and cafe Haven's Kitchen, and her charity of choice Edible Schoolyard NYC, which educates children in the public school system here on good eating via hands-on cooking and gardening programs.
Cayne, who has five kids of her own, is also longtime devotee of Edible Schoolyard's founder, Alice Waters, who pioneered the organic, farm-to-table movement. "She's had a tremendous impact on the way we all think about food," Cayne continues, noting that her influence is spreading to whole new generations, thanks to Edible Schoolyard. "Our aim is to connect academics and school with food, health and wellness in a positive, joyful way."
Edible Schoolyard NYC’s (ESYNYC) mission is to support edible education for every child in New York City. ESYNYC partners with New York City public schools to cultivate healthy students and communities through hands-on cooking and gardening education, transforming children’s relationship with food and promoting healthier school environments.
We work closely with the city's public schools, placing teachers in schools to teach gardening and cooking. At the heart of our program is our gardening and cooking lessons. The students might have a lesson about the water system or compost or recycling. Or they might grow basil and then make pesto out of it. There are tons of different ways we can help kids make the connection between what they're growing and what they're eating, between food and their own health. Our aim is to connect academics and school with food, health and wellness in a positive, joyful way that is hands-on and culturally relevant to the many communities we work with.
We have two Demonstration Schools, each with five full-time staff members: two gardening teachers, two cooking teachers and a program manager. Those are our flagships where we see every kid in the school. They're coming to a garden or cooking class almost every week and also participate in extracurricular programs. We really work with those schools to transform the culture of health.
Then we also have six Network Schools, where we have more limited staff and work closely with the school teachers to teach gardening and cooking. We also work with about 15 partner schools, supporting them to build capacity.
And we also have an intensive teacher-training program, which sees about 500 teachers a year who are interested in bringing this edible education to their communities.
Any classroom can be transformed into a kitchen classroom. Some schools have stoves and ovens—the full works—but we can also bring in a small fridge, induction burners, things like that. We can do a lot of different things that don't involve a huge amount of cooking, like salads.
We work very closely with the Department of Education and individual principals and school leaders—we couldn’t do our work without them! It is a true partnership. But as a non-profit we can also be flexible in our approach and bring focus and expertise in gardening, cooking, and food education that many schools don’t have.
So many! Research shows that students who grow and harvest their own vegetables are more likely to eat them and more willing to try new foods, which can help develop healthier eating patterns. One of the things we measure is how many kids will try the food—in our schools, it's 98 percent! At first the kids will be a bit suspicious about trying new foods and then, after we've been there a while, they will just try everything.
There's a rule with kids that says they have to try something, like broccoli, 17 times before they like it. You can't do that when you're a low-income family with $10 a week to spend on groceries. What we do is take off the first 16 times, so the kids can go home and be excited about making roasted vegetables.
Our kitchen classrooms become the heart of the school in the very same way the kitchen is the heart of the home.
Gardening and cooking both teach really fundamental human skills. You plant something not for yourself but for the next class. You learn about serving others. You learn about the effort and care that goes into things that go into your body.
Our kitchen classrooms become the heart of the school in the very same way the kitchen is the heart of the home. They become a safe, positive, comforting space for the students. We hear this from the schools all the time. At one of the schools in East Harlem, there's even a group who call themselves the Kitchen Groupies because they hang out in the kitchen all the time!
About six months after I opened Haven's Kitchen, a friend of mine, who was on the board, thought I would be a good match because I have a background in sustainability, food justice and food systems—it's why I opened my cooking school. Edible Schoolyard NYC combines education with fresh food and food access… all the things that get me excited.
I love watching the classes. I'm a teacher by nature so that's my favorite part—just watching the kids. You know, Edible Schoolyard NYC is about much more than food and vegetables. The kids who come may not have as easy a time in, say, their English or math classes. This is a chance for them to shine, get some confidence and feel good about themselves.
Students setting up their farmstand. The kids make the signs, take the money, write the recipes… It's just really inspiring.
My mantra is that if you give anyone—whether a child or a grown-up—agency and control, they're going to enjoy the process a lot more. Cook or garden together. Give them ownership; let them get creative. I've never met a kid who won't taste something they've made themselves.