By Joyce Sun

Generally speaking, most people understand eating healthy means choosing carrots over chips. Yet still, one in three kids eat fast food each day. So why is there such disconnect between what individuals know they should eat and what they actually choose for their body?

Schools across the country are starting to address this disconnect, taking a more active approach to educating their students about healthful eating and how good choices can impact them now and well into their future. Chartwells K12 took this one step further. Earlier this year, we debuted a first-of-its kind Mobile Teaching Kitchen, affectionately named Elly, specifically for K-12 students. Elly is traveling to schools around the country with hands-on, curriculum-based food education to change our youngest generation’s attitudes about healthy eating. Here’s how the Kitchen works:

  •  A Catalyst for Active Discovery: Research suggests when you stop telling someone how to eat healthy, and actually teach them how to cook and prepare healthy meals, they are more likely to incorporate those practices into their daily lives. The design of Elly promotes active discovery for students. Because of the open concept, students can engage in the entire cooking and learning process with their own culinary space for experimentation and engagement.
  • Hands-On Learning: In May alone, Elly traveled 600 miles and taught nearly 1,000 students how to prepare a white bean and chicken taco recipe. These demonstrations not only teach children how to cook a healthy meal but why it is healthy by exploring the nutritional benefits of the ingredients as well as where the ingredients come from.
  • Chefs as “Teachers”: Chartwells K12 chefs serve as “teachers” at each of Elly’s stops, along with registered dietitians. A study that appeared in JAMA Pediatrics in March 2015 by researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health concluded that both short- and long-term partnerships between chefs and school cafeterias brought a 30 percent bump in produce selection and consumption.

Now, even if Elly doesn’t make it to your school, there are still a number of ways for educators to incorporate food education into the classroom. With childhood obesity rates still at a high, and with quite a bit of national attention focused on the healthfulness of school food, it’s more important than ever for schools to support teachers and parents in instilling lifelong healthy eating habits in young kids both in school and at home. Here are a few tips to power your lessons:

  1. Host a speaker series of food experts. Once a month, invite a relevant guest speaker to your school to discuss the many positive benefits of healthy eating. One month, it can be a farmer, who can discuss how eating local impacts your health, the environment, and the local economy. Another time, a chef from a popular local restaurant can share their food journey.
  2. Plant a garden. Gardens come in many shapes and sizes, and are an amazing way to teach students about health, responsibility, sustainability and patience. At Chartwells, we’ve seen four-year-olds willingly eat kale and radishes because they were involved in the process. For lesson ideas using veggies and fruits, check out the eat. learn. live. School Garden Program guide.
  3. Plan a lesson around what’s being served in the cafeteria.  Kids will start making healthier choices if they understand the connection between the lessons they learn in the classroom and the food being served on their lunch tray and plates. Chartwells K12 and nonprofit Pilot Light are working to bring food education to every child at school. For example, in Chicago, fourth graders participated in a social studies unit where they learned about the relationship between food and the civil rights movement. 
  4. Celebrate Farm to School Month. October is Farm to School Month, and it’s a time to celebrate the connections happening all over the country between kids and local food. Plan an event, like a garden party, cooking lessons or a farm field trip, to educate students about the importance of making informed food choices. For additional ideas, visit the National Farm to School Network. 

Initial Impact

While Elly’s road trip is just kicking off, its impact will be immediate and long-lasting. After only its first two stops, Chartwells collected the following data from student participants:

  • 8% more students said they were very confident following a simple recipe.
  • 15% more students said they were very confident about preparing and cooking new foods and recipes.
  • 29% more students said they were very confident about being able to cook from basic ingredients.

For years, schools have been the place where kids learn to read, write, and multiply. Let’s make school the place where they learn to eat healthy, too.

For more, see:

Joyce Sun is the Teaching Kitchen Manager at Chartwells K12.


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