Giving Peas a Chance
Published in TC Today - Volume 35, No. 2
Christiane Baker got interested in food when her mom stopped cooking. Now she’s a leader in garden-based nutrition education for kids
By Suzanne Guillette
On the eve of the launch event for Edible Schoolyard NYC, Christiane Baker, the organization’s director, was alone in the kitchen of P.S. 216 in Gravesend, Brooklyn, washing more than 1,000 organic apples.
It was par for the course for a woman—and an organization—whose mission is to teach that food isn’t just a commodity that appears on our plates.
Under Baker, a part-time student in TC’s Nutrition Education master’s degree program, Edible Schoolyard NYC, a teaching garden located at P.S. 216 (the Arturo Toscanini Elementary School), is partnering with the College on a kitchen and garden-themed curricula that will enable children to enhance their learning in areas such as math, reading and art.
“Instead of the old slogan, ‘Reading, Writing and Arithmetic,’ we want to change it to, ‘Eating, Reading, Writing, Arithmetic,’” says Baker.
Edible Schoolyard was founded in Berkeley, California, by famed Chez Panisse chef and organic food activist Alice Waters. There are now affiliates in Los Angeles, New Orleans and Greensboro, North Carolina, but New York City’s chapter—a half-acre of land that was transformed into crop-ready soil this past fall—is the organization’s first four-season garden.
At Arturo Toscanini, students are growing more than 50 kinds of vegetables and a variety of grains and will soon be learning to prepare food they’ve grown in the school’s new kitchen classroom. During the week of Thanksgiving, the students harvested food from the garden, which then became part of their school lunch. Food scraps were composted in the garden.
“The kids get to witness and participate in the magic,” says Baker. “They participate in the whole cycle of food.”
Baker’s passion for food dates back to high school, when her mother declared she was finished cooking for the family. “I realized that if I wanted to eat—and eat well—I had to cook,” Baker recalls.
After Baker attended college at Barnard, where she majored in political science, she established a successful career in communications, becoming Director of New York Governor Mario M. Cuomo’s News Unit. But her interest in food and health remained strong. She also served as a marketing and outreach consultant at the Harris Obesity Prevention Effort Center at New York University, where she learned about the behavioral aspects of obesity, as well as prevention strategies. Later, after founding her own media company, she developed a national television show for preschoolers on PBS, called Franny’s Kitchen, which was designed to teach children where food came from. The show’s messages were much like Edible Schoolyard’s, which is no surprise, considering that Waters served as a consultant.
But Baker’s real “lightbulb” moment as a food activist came 10 years ago, after she and her husband started Schneider Vineyards, on Long Island’s North Fork. Almost immediately, chemical salesmen began knocking on their door—and after getting trained in the chemical application of pesticides, Baker ended up vowing to eat organic, a value that became all the more important with the birth of her daughter, Chloe, in 2002.
“I learned first-hand how hard it is to feed a child well with our current food system and culture,” she says.
Baker started to think about how she might be able to make a difference in the areas of food policy, food systems and childhood obesity. She applied to the master’s program at TC to position herself for the next phase of her career. She says, “When I started the program, I thought, working for Edible Schoolyard would be my dream job—and then in April, it happened.”
The community aspect of the garden has been particularly positive, Baker says, bringing together students, teachers, parents and other people from the neighborhood, including a man who graduated from P.S. 216 in 1927. Families from Italy, Ukraine and Yemen have offered both recipes and crop suggestions, based on their cultural heritage.
“Not only are families reconnecting over food, but parents are eager for cooking classes and nutritional advice,” says Baker.
Baker is working to open four more Edible Schoolyards—one in each borough—to showcase how an “edible education” can truly be integrated into the fabric of the city’s public schools. In addition to bringing an interdisciplinary garden and kitchen classroom to each of these schools, the new Schoolyards also will serve as resource centers for teachers, principals and school groups throughout their respective boroughs to experience and learn firsthand the benefits of an edible education. Ultimately, Baker wants every New York City public school student to have access to an edible education. In an effort to fulfill this mandate, Baker and her colleagues at Teachers College are partnering to collect data on the effectiveness of the program.
“We’d love to measure whether or not this program had an impact on the servings of vegetables that children eat, as well as, ‘Did this help standardized test scores?’” says Pamela Koch, Executive Director of TC’s Center for Food & Environment, whose Linking Food and the Environment (LiFE) program is a basis for the new curriculum being developed by Edible Schoolyard NYC and TC.
When she’s not at P.S. 216, Baker can be found cooking at home with Chloe in the kitchen they’ve dubbed the “C&C Cookshop.”
Now eight, Chloe has developed two specialties: omelets and Caesar salads. Says Baker, “I really believe kids can do a lot in the kitchen if simply given the chance.”