December 07, 2012

Introducing Foodwise Kids

A class of 32 fourth-graders gathers around the kitchen table, sampling something none of them have tasted before: a small, green, oval fruit called a pineapple guava, or feijoa.

“It tastes like kiwi!” says one child. “Gummy bears!” another one chimes in.

All of the students finish their samples, scraping the last juicy bits of fruit from the peel with their teeth. By the end of the field trip, the children will discover that pineapple guavas are currently in season at the farmers market, and many will choose them as one of the ingredients for a fruit and vegetable salad they will create as part of their class field trip.

This fall, CUESA launched Foodwise Kids, a new program that utilizes the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market as a classroom for nutrition education. Each two-hour class consists of an interactive farmers market learning activity followed by a hands-on cooking lesson in the CUESA Kitchen using fresh market produce.

“We only have the students for two hours, which is a short time to make an impact, so we try pack it with as much as education as we can,” says CUESA’s Market Chef, Elianna Friedman, who oversees the program. Since September, 396 children from 18 public elementary schools have participated in Foodwise Kids, most of them low-income students.

Saeeda Hafiz, a site nutrition coordinator for the San Francisco Unified School District’s Nutrition Education Project, sees the field trips as a perfect complement to the district’s initiative, which aims to combat childhood obesity in San Francisco (where about 32% of children are considered overweight or obese). She says that Foodwise Kids reinforces the lessons from the schools’ hands-on nutrition classes and Harvest of the Month program. “One of the biggest things I like as a teacher is that when we involve the community, the students see that it’s not just us saying to eat better,” she explains. “There are other people outside the borders of our school who are saying the same thing.”

The Foodwise Kids program begins with a comparative produce tasting and an introduction to California’s growing seasons, sustainability, and the benefits of farmers markets. Students then break up into small groups for a market scavenger hunt in which they meet farmers and ask questions about where and how their food is grown. Each group purchases produce (with market tokens provided by CUESA) to bring back to the kitchen for their cooking class. They taste new fruits and vegetables, learn basic cooking skills such as how to safely use a knife, and gain confidence preparing a dish from scratch.

One of the most exciting parts for students is being able to pick out produce for the dish with their group’s $6 budget. They come up with creative seasonal combinations, such as apples and romanesco, or carrots, persimmons, mandarins, and spinach. “When we empower a child to make decisions about their food, we see them choosing healthful options,” says Friedman.

The response from teachers, parents, and students has been overwhelmingly positive. “For the kids and the parents, it was one of the best field trips they’ve ever gone on,” said Bonnie Tse, a first-grade teacher at Gordon J. Lau Elementary School in Chinatown, “and one of the best for me to take my own kids on, as well.” After her visit, she has encouraged students and their parents to visit the farmers market on weekends.

Molly Last, a fourth-grade teacher at Longfellow Elementary School in the Outer Mission, appreciates how the activities allow students to apply “book knowledge” gained in the classroom to real-world experiences. For her class, the farmers market scavenger hunt highlighted cities and regions from their California geography studies, while the cooking portion, in which students followed a recipe for olive oil and herb crackers, brought in fractions from their math lessons. “It was not only about healthy eating, but a good synchronization with other subjects,” she notes.

Farmers have been delighted by the energy and natural curiosity that the children bring to the market. “We’ve enjoyed them immensely,” says Rebecca Torosian of Tory Farms, a seasonal vendor at the Thursday market. “They’re just like little sponges. They love to learn.”

The students have so much fun talking to farmers, shopping in the market, getting messy in the kitchen, eating the dishes they’ve created, and discovering new foods, that they hardly notice they’re learning. “When they’re involved in the process of making the dish, they’re so excited to taste it because it’s a creative thing that they own,” observes CUESA Culinary Intern Sasha Bernstein.You’re not just putting vegetables in front of them and telling them they have to eat it. It’s like, ‘I made this. I can’t wait to try it.’”

Or as one fourth-grader named Christine put it, “My favorite part was everything!”

Our Foodwise Kids schedule is already booked for the spring 2013 semester. Pending funding, we hope to expand the program to twice a week in the 2013-14 school year, so that we can offer this program to more groups. We also hope to redesign the CUESA Kitchen, which was recently moved to the south arcade of the Ferry Building, to include more work stations and kid-friendly equipment.

Help CUESA grow Foodwise Kids in 2013! This program is free to schools, and we rely heavily individual on contributions, grants, and sponsorships to cover the costs. Please make a year-end donation today.

Thanks to Bonnie Tse and her first-grade class for sharing the photos and drawing that appear in this article.

About CUESA

CUESA (Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture) is dedicated to cultivating a sustainable food system through the operation of the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market and its educational programs. Learn More »