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This is Part I of a two-part article on a model Public-Private Partnership among a small independent chain of pizzerias, a school district, a county health department, and a local greening organization, all working together to make learning about healthy eating more fun.
Congress was the butt of late night jokes last month when headlines reported that tomato paste on frozen pizza counted as a serving of vegetables in federally subsidized school lunches. But what if pizza, one of the favorite lunchtime foods of the American youth, could really be made healthy, and deliver an education in nutrition at the same time? Thanks to New York City restaurateurs Jeremy Wladis and Paula Seefeldt, owners of Fuel Pizza in the Carolinas, some lucky students in Charlotte, NC are experiencing just that.
Through a sprinkling of “pizza gardens” throughout the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District (CMS), Fuel Pizza is making the positive benefits of the slice last way longer than the average 15 minutes it takes to consume it. Their innovative “Field to Fork Program,” started in 2009, uses pizza as a vehicle to combine lessons on gardening, nutrition and cooking, as a creative approach to tackling childhood obesity.
Fuel Pizza’s Field to Fork Program was the brainchild of co-owner Paula Seefeldt. Inspired by First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” program and the White House vegetable garden, Seefeldt wanted to take advantage of the long growing season and abundant land in Charlotte and start a school gardening program that was linked to businesses. Seefeldt’s idea was to teach elementary school students how to plant and tend a “pizza garden,” as a hands-on and fun way to teach nutrition. The program culminates each June when the students harvest their vegetables and take a field trip to a Fuel Pizza restaurant to make veggie pizzas using their bounty (on whole wheat crust, of course!).
Seefeldt, a social worker by training and a board member of the NYC-based Wellness in the Schools program, was not new to issues of childhood nutrition, but she needed local partners with expertise in curriculum development and gardening. She quickly teamed up with Allison Mignery, a registered dietitian in charge of the Physical Activity & Nutrition Team at the Mecklenburg County Health Department, Andrew Thiessen a horticulturist and volunteer at Charlotte Green, and CMS Child Nutrition Services. For the first two years, Mignery assumed the role as Program Coordinator, in addition to her day job at the County Health Department.
The first year, the team piloted the program, formerly called the “Fuel Pizza Garden Project,” in five hand-picked schools. Based on their experience that year, they expanded the program in the second year to eight schools, each linked to a different Fuel Pizza location, and devised a more formal process that included an application and selection criteria. According to Fuel Pizza Manager Zach Current, they only expected about 20 applications and were surprised to get 35. Due to success and demand for the program, now in its third year, they will select 14 classes – 2 for each of the 7 Fuel Pizza restaurants in Charlotte. By the December 7th deadline, they had received 70 applications!
Applicants are in part screened based on geographic location and proximity to a Fuel Pizza restaurant. Schools are not required to have gardens already, but for logistical reasons, their goal is for half of the selected sites to have existing gardens. There is also a goal to select classes from schools in economically disadvantaged areas, which are also often located in food deserts – areas where families do not have access to a grocery store that sells fresh fruits and vegetables.
Applicants, K-5 classroom teachers, must have the support of their Principals and write a short essay how they will incorporate nutrition, gardening and cooking into the curriculum. Sustainability is an important part of the application in that applicants must describe how the mission of the project will be continued after the grant period ends, how they will reach out to the rest of the school and surrounding community, and how the garden will be maintained after the project’s completion.
Teachers submit their applications in early December and are selected in January. From January through June, selected classes get an abundance of expert assistance from the “Field to Fork” team. Mecklenburg County Health Department’s Allison Mignery developed a curriculum for the program. She and a CMS dietitian visit each class to teach lessons on nutrition and healthy cooking. They provide the teachers with guidelines for how they can continue the lessons throughout the project year and beyond.
Fuel Pizza’s Zach Current visits every Field to Fork class and teaches a math and science lesson, cleverly disguised as a cooking class. He provides the students with the proportions for making pizza dough and sauce in a restaurant, and challenges them to figure out the proportions to make it on the scale of a personal pizza. He also uses the scientific method to get students to make predictions about what will happen to the dough.
Charlotte Green’s Andrew Thiessen oversees the preparation of the gardens in March and plantings in April, and helps the teachers to develop a plan and a job schedule for maintaining the garden. He is always available by phone or email to answer questions about watering (over- or under-), fertilizer, or -- the most frequently asked question – about how to maintain the compost pile.
One key lesson learned from the first year pilots was that seedlings had to be started indoors in January in order for them to be ready for harvest in June. This led to a great partnership with an area school for children with special needs that had a large greenhouse. Tomatoes, bell peppers, spinach, basil and oregano are started from seeds and are tended by teens in an after-school gang prevention program called “No Easy Walk,” led by John Councelman. The teens take pictures of the seedlings each week and post them on a project website so that students in the chosen elementary school classes can track the progress of their plants.
Thiessen starts the seeds at the greenhouse in January and is present at each school in March/April when the seedlings are transplanted to the pizza gardens. When he first asks students whether they are excited about eating a veggie pizza at the end of the semester, Thiessen receives less than enthusiastic responses. But that all changes after three months of tending their pizza garden, in-class cooking and nutrition lessons, and a field trip to their local Fuel Pizza.
Next month in Part II we will learn about the students' experiences at harvest time and in the restaurant, the partners' impressions about whether this model works, and their plans for the future.
Lisa Maller is an urban environmental planner and New York City Public School parent, volunteering to make New York City public schools more sustainable.
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April 20-21, 2013
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