Q&A: Morgan Rogers of Edible Schoolyard NYC

Photo by Emily Frances

Q&A: Morgan Rogers of Edible Schoolyard NYC

When I step off the subway platform in Gravesend, I don’t notice anything out of the ordinary. Black and green livery cabs speed through stoplights throughout the day. The bodega on the corner directly across from the subway station carries the usual neighborhood staples: dollar coffee, signature New York bagels, and Boar’s Head deli meats. The primary ethnic groups that make up the neighborhood — Russians, Italians, and Sephardic Jews — have built a strong community, as is evident from the nearby Italian bakery, synagogue, and Russian bathhouse. And at the heart of it all is P.S. 216, a towering structure that has educated the children of Gravesend for decades.

As neighborhoods in New York City have changed, the schools, with their brick exteriors and high ceilings, have remained a constant fixture. Even the guard, a woman in her late 60s who greets me gruffly when I enter the building, seems from another era.

I walk the halls, past artwork designed by six-year olds, and I can hear the distant sound of children’s laughter and singing. It’s all very familiar. But walk out back, and you’ll see why P.S. 216 couldn’t be mistaken for just any city school. There, on the footprint of a parking lot, is a fully functional greenhouse garden, a tool shed, a kitchen, and a classroom. This is all part of a movement known as the Edible Schoolyard, based on a program founded in Berkeley, Calif. by restaurateur and author Alice Waters. Waters’ goal was to turn a blighted urban school into a place where children could be taught a food-based curriculum, increasing the health and the quality of life of the students and the community in which they lived. Her culinary philosophy of using sustainable, locally grown produce has gone on to reach thousands of children nationwide with partnering Edible Schoolyards in cities such as Los Angeles, New Orleans, Greensboro, N.C., and now Brooklyn.

The greenhouse at P.S. 216.

Unlike a traditional farmers’ market, where produce is shipped to an urban center, the Edible Schoolyard enables children to grow their own food, and, perhaps as importantly, to take home knowledge to their families. The program’s mission is not to address broader public health issues like obesity or diabetes by telling kids what to eat, but rather by teaching them about the process of growing, harvesting, and preparing food — giving them tools to make informed decisions.

Waters’ Chez Panisse Foundation — which officially changed its name to Edible Schoolyard in 2011 — provides information about the overarching program online, but the Edible Schoolyard program at P.S. 216 is part of the independent Edible Schoolyard NYC, the brainchild of John Lyons, producer and former president of Focus Features. Lyons helped raise $2 million to break ground for the project. He chose 216 because he had previously visited the school through the Principal for a Day program, which brought New Yorkers to observe life in a city school. Gravesend also seemed like a good fit for the project, as it had just two public gardens and few green open spaces.

Edible Schoolyard NYC has since expanded to its second location, a campus in East Harlem — and that’s where program director Morgan Rogers comes in. As a former kitchen teacher at P.S. 216, Rogers helped the establish the program in the Gravesend community and is now coordinating between both campuses to hone and implement the Edible Schoolyard vision. We spoke to her about the genesis of the project and where it’s going.

How did you start working with Edible Schoolyard?

I actually started working at a company called Taste Buds, which is a for-profit kids’ cooking company in Manhattan. I was doing that while I was going to culinary school, so in the afternoons, I would cook for birthday parties and private lessons, that kind of thing. And it was wonderful — but at culinary school I really learned that I wanted to get more into the kitchen. I knew I didn't want the restaurant life — the hours — but I loved being in the kitchen and the work that I was doing there.

So I started working with Wellness in the Schools. Kind of like a Teach for America model: they brought culinary school graduates into public school cafeterias and trained the public school cooks how to do healthy cooking from scratch. I actually spent a year in a public school kitchen, wearing a hairnet and a plastic apron, serving 500 kids lunches. But we were making veggie chili and chicken marinade from scratch and just changing the food the kids were eating, which was great. But having gone fully into the cafeteria, I realized how much I wanted to connect with the kids, and the conversation that was really interesting was talking to the kids about why their food was changing. They didn't see their chicken fingers anymore, and they were pissed! So I started going into classrooms and doing kitchen classes and started an after-school program, cooking what was being served in the cafeteria with middle school kids after school — and loved it. I really thought that if we're going to change the way the kids are eating, the educational part is the important part. They're kids, but they're still humans; they need to know, and they like knowing, and once they know why we're doing something, they can be on board.

And so I then took over their seasonal cooking lab: they spend a week going into the classrooms and cooking a seasonal recipe that is served in the cafeteria with all 500 kids. So, I started doing that full-time after a year there. This is going to sound crazy, but every week, I was going to a new school of about 500 kids and teaching a seasonal recipe. And then, after teaching all 500 kids, I would pack up shop and go teach it again at the next school. So, teaching about 3,000 kids every month and a half.

That was very much a traveling show, and it was a wonderful way into the classroom, but it wasn’t really changing as much as I wanted to change. There was no sustainability because I would pack up and I would leave. So I was craving a home and a community, and this job offer came up for me to be the kitchen teacher for Edible Schoolyard NYC, where there was this half-acre garden — the kids had been going to garden class, and they just needed the connection of how to cook the food they had been growing. And that was awesome. That was a home where I changed an art room into a kitchen classroom, nothing like what you’ll see pictures of: it was a fourth-floor walk-up with a sink, and if you plugged two things in, the power went out.

But we made it work: we started teaching monthly cooking classes to the kids. I worked at Columbia Teachers College to create a curriculum by grade, which is what the garden curriculum already was, so that we taught differently to first grade than we did to second grade, and we aligned our curriculum with the common core standards so that we weren’t taking kids out of class to go play. They were just in a garden classroom or a kitchen classroom having some hands-on experiential learning. And it was awesome — it was so fun.

We went up to East Harlem to start our second showcase school, where there was no garden, and we started the kitchen program first. So it was a very different experience, a very different population. But I realized how wonderful it was to have come into the Brooklyn school and taught kids that had already, for a year, been growing their own food, because they were already making connections. They had grown the lettuces that we’re eating in the salads. They recognized them, and they were really psyched to eat them. And up in Harlem, I actually found there was just as much enthusiasm. I think the first salad class we taught up here, we taught to 400 kids, and 399 tried it — and the one little girl who didn’t had a loose tooth and felt terrible about it. The kids up here, off the bat, loved this salad, just don’t have any access to it.

So as we grew, there was always the plan for this program director role who could work with all of the teachers at both of our schools, and that was really exciting to me because I could make an impact on where we’re going as a program. But I totally miss teaching — and I feel so bad because I get to sub in whenever a teacher’s sick, so whenever a teacher is sick, I’m like, “Yes!” It’s really fun, because I get to work with all of these wonderful teachers, and I’m in the schools, so even though I’m not teaching anymore, I know all of the students. It’s a really wonderful step that I made this past July.

How are the classes actually integrated into the school curriculum — or, for that matter, the school schedule?

The lesson plans themselves are tied to the common core curriculum, so one lesson might touch on science while another lesson might touch on English language. How it works in the school day is, every month, all 600 kids in Brooklyn and 600 kids in Harlem come to kitchen class once a month; that’s about how long it takes us to get through all of the students. So, at the end of the month, we’ll have taught 600; then we start over with the May recipe. We have two full-time garden teachers and two full-time kitchen teachers at both schools, and the classroom teacher comes with his or her students, and then they all do the activity together. The kids come one day a month for more of an educational piece where they might analyze what’s going on in the garden, and then the second day — the day after, usually — is more of a garden work day, where they just water or mulch or do garden work for 45 minutes.

We’ve really found teachers are integrating with what’s going on in the garden. If kids have to write a persuasive essay, it’s about why you need to start a garden, for instance. And we’ve provided teachers with extensions to do that, but we’ve also seen, just organically — ha ha! — those things coming up. We’ve had teachers say things like, “This is great, we’re going to do a math class on this lesson,” because they see how excited the kids are about it, and they’re starting to make connections. But it depends on the teacher very much.

Speaking of moving beyond the ESY classrooms, what do you hope kids take away from the program overall — literal skills, ideologically? What’s the end goal?

We just went through this process, actually, internally, as we’ve grown to two schools. Our mission itself is now a little different than what’s on the website. We now provide our students with an experiential, interdisciplinary food-to-table education in order to transform their relationship with food. And then when we talk about what we want in a perfect world way down the road, what would be our vision, is, we want our students to be educated and empowered to make healthy food choices for themselves, their communities, and their environment. Our East Harlem school motto is “Agents for Change,” so we want them to be active change agents for a healthy, sustainable food system.

And what we’ve done is, we’ve broken down by grade what sort of skills, knowledge, attitude change, behavioral change we want to see in our students, and we’re starting, now, to track that. And that’s just as we’re getting more experienced and wanting to be a little more analytical of what exactly we want these kids to get out of what we’re doing, and are we then doing that the right way. If we want them cooking at home, are we providing them with the proper outlets to actually do that? So that’s where our conversation is going now, which is really cool.

Is there a particular moment where you saw a kid really get it — a success story that sticks out?

We have had family cooking nights and after-school family programs, which is really when you get to hear from the parents stories like ,“My daughter used to go straight for the chips in the cupboard, and now when she comes home from school, she opens up the fridge and figures out what kind of healthy snack she could eat.” A lot of it is seeing changes in what the kids are eating at the salad bar. We had one family cooking night in Brooklyn with fourth grade, where someone who was standing very close, looking excitedly at me — we were sautéing veggies — was like, “Oh, I’ll take over.” So he was stirring the veggies while I went off to do something else, and his wife leapt up and started taking all these pictures, and she was like, “This is the closest I’ve seen him to the stove in our entire relationship.” She had never seen him step up and cook, and he was loving it.

What goes on in the garden is integrated into the classroom curriculum.

I think a lot of the fun parts for me are when the parents get to come into school and see their kids not just cooking this food but enjoying it. One of the more frustrating parts, I think, a cooking teacher or garden teacher has experienced is knowing that the kids try and like the food in class but hearing their parents come in and say, “Oh, he doesn’t eat anything green.” It’s a very standard thing. And I know my parents would say it, because I never ate anything green. But getting to bring them into the classroom and having them cook with their kids and see that their kids like this stuff is really, really special.

I think the other piece that’s unique to Edible Schoolyard is, the last ten minutes of every cooking class is the kids setting their own table: they put down a table cloth; there’s usually a jar of flowers put in the center. They love that part — the actual setting of the table to make a nice family time — and that’s something that parents say: “He actually likes setting the table — I never knew that!”

When you’re talking about changing kids’ attitudes toward food, there’s obviously a health aspect to that. The question of — is that something that’s talked about openly in the ESY classes?

It’s a very sensitive topic, right? To talk about obesity — when you’re working with kids especially, but also when you’re coming into a community and making change, it can be a very offensive approach. I think one of the things that attracted me to Edible Schoolyard in the first place was the approach that we have: we would say that we definitely want to change and help improve what people are eating that’s creating what we call diet-related illnesses, and we talk about it with the kids, because it comes up a lot in middle school — being fat versus being thin. Honestly I’ve found that, yes, there’s obesity, but even if you’re not seeing it on the outside, it’s happening on the inside, in your heart, in your blood. So we talk about how it’s really not about shape and size; it’s about what you’re putting in your body and then how you feel.

So our approach is really not to say, “Don’t eat this,” and say no to things — although we will have that conversation when it comes up, gladly. It’s really to make kids fall in love with healthy food. This happened to me, too: I used to hate tomatoes, but when I first ate a tomato from the garden, it was mind-blowing. When you first taste food that you grow yourself, it has this flavor that is amazing. So we’re not saying, “This is bad, and what we’re doing is good,” because that, I think, in the history of community change, has never worked. We’re really just saying, “Taste this. Do you like it? It’s amazing.” And the kids are falling in love with it. And then it’s those conversations about, you know, why are we eating hummus? But it’s less about calories and protein.

Those conversations come in the second year of our program, and they come when the kids are asking questions. When they’re already loving the food, we talk about the benefits. This happens with adults, too: the second it becomes a carb count or a calorie count, you’re looking at the pieces of food, and you’re not looking at food itself. As we tell the kids, people have had their different reasons to eat spinach — the vitamins, the nutrients, the minerals. The conversation over the past decade has changed on why, if you pick apart the pieces of it. But what everyone has always agreed on is, eating spinach is great, and it’s great for your body. So we don’t really try to pick apart and break apart that, because that’s not why we eat spinach. Just trying to share that enthusiasm is what we’ve really found successful.

That makes a lot of sense. It’s sort of a parallel with how positive reinforcement is suggested over “don’t”s…

Right, if you tell kids not to do it — I remember, in middle school, you want to fight the Man. When I was in middle school, the Man was my mom, and my poor mom had to deal with me just fighting her tooth and nail. The Man right now, in our society — and it’s changed, I think, over the decades — is the broken food system and is the terrible way that the food system targets different communities in different ways. So getting the kids to be advocates for how it’s okay to be angry about that or to be offended by that and want to make change — if we can make the Man that broken food system — we’re bringing up a group of kids that are fighting for that. Edible Schoolyard is just great in that way, in that it’s a very honest conversation with kids and with families about what’s going on and working with them to change the way that things got to be right now.

So that’s another thing you’re aiming for kids to take away from the program — a sense of food activism, advocating for community gardening spaces?

Yeah — and we talk about how we want all our students to increase the amount they grow and prepare plant-based food and consume plant-based food across the board at any age, and then we feel like, at an older age, they’re able to increase their sharing and advocating those behaviors. If they’re doing that in the classroom, with the structure being provided for them by their teacher, then the next step would be they’re actually going out into the world and turning to their friends outside of the classroom, unprompted by us, trying to make that change.

So the fifth grade “campaign for salad” class is one of my favorites in the Brooklyn school, and I think it’s gone every spring since we’ve had the program. The kids actually do square-foot gardening, so it’s a map and some plans and some preparation for what they want to grow for a salad bar bed. So they get to pick the plants, and they grow that over time, and then they actually make posters and do a “campaign for salad” and convince everyone in the school why they should eat at the salad bar. It’s sort of like a marketing approach. Most of the food that we grow goes to the cooking classes, but some of this salad bed goes into the cafeteria for the big “Garden to Cafeteria Day,” and the kids are actually then getting to celebrate the salad. It’s this lesson that now, in our second year of teaching kitchen classes, has turned into actually creating their own dressing — so the kids are very much prompted in class to pick an oil, pick a vinegar, to have a little recipe contest, and then the teachers pick the recipes that work. So they’re actually experimenting not just with taking a recipe that we create for them and making it in class but coming up with their own recipe — which would be similar to opening up their own fridge and seeing what they have in there, right?

The garden at P.S. 216.

Actually, last year, when they did the campaign for salad and they got to the marketing phase — to convince the school why you should eat salad, why it’s good for you — it was the first year when they said, “Why do we need to try to convince people to eat salad? Salad’s delicious!” They still got really into it, but they were like, “I don’t understand. Do you want me to just get all of my classmates that already eat and love salad to … eat and love salad?” And I was like, “Yeah, I do!”

I think the other advocacy or access piece that we do is, starting in June and running through October, November, we do a farm stand at our school, because towards the end of June is when our classes wrap up, and we have a lot of stuff producing. The kids actually help out at the farm stand, and we sell the extra vegetables; we do it at pick-up time, so they’re selling them to their parents. Everything’s like a dollar a bunch — it’s priced to be like “suggested donation.” That’s the way for parents to take home stuff that their kids make. The kids and the kitchen teachers make a tasting, and the kids really push it on the parents: “Try this salad; we made it and it’s awesome! Try this pesto!”

What we’re doing in the older ages is definitely trying to create this batch of good behaviors. But the best stories are when we’re sitting at the table and a kid will look at it and go, “Ew, that’s gross!” and another kid will say what I’m opening my mouth to say, which is like, “Hey, keep an open mind!” or, “What are you talking about? It’s delicious!” It’s when you see the kids driving those conversations that we don’t have to drive. Like, one of the students in our class the other day asked, “When are we going to make chicken?” and one of the other students said, “Well, that’s not what we do here. We only make what we grow.” And the student responded, “Well, when do we make normal food?” And he said, “This is normal food. It’s just not what you’re used to. You should try it.”

Speaking of chicken, I heard rumors about a chicken coop?

This is great — the rumors are flying! (That was a chicken joke; I am only learning from our best teachers.) The chicken coop is something that’s being built this spring. We started talking to the kids about it. We have ordered the chickens — they’re coming as live chicks. They’re coming in May; the chicken coop is being built in June. But by the summer, we will have a chicken coop. We’ve waited, actually, and talked as an organization about how we really try to focus on food that comes from the garden, but that’s really a good conversation driver — like, “Oh, you want us to make hamburger in here? Well, think about if we had a cow in the garden, and how much that cow would have to eat, just to have that cow be ready in like three years. It would eat like half the stuff in our garden. And then one class, maybe a half class, would be able to have burgers.”

Right now, 600 kids a month can eat from the garden. It’s not like there’s anything wrong with meat — it just drives a good conversation about what it takes to get that meat. With the chickens, we’re definitely going to cook with eggs, but we’ve been waiting — one, because we had little toaster ovens and no sink, which is a cooking-with-kids egg nightmare, but now we have this big, beautiful kitchen classroom with an oven and three stoves and sinks for days, so hygiene-wise, we’re more ready to cook with eggs. We’ll have volunteers come on the weekends to help with the chickens, and they’ll get to take eggs home. I know one school does an egg raffle, where you put in a dollar to win the egg raffle, then one family gets to take home a dozen eggs at the end of the week, and that helps sustain caring for the chickens and a lot of the garden.

Any further expansion plans, aside from the chickens?

We have talked about expanding. We now have two showcase schools, our Brooklyn one — for which, really, construction has just been completed this fall — and our East Harlem school. When we talk about expanding, where we are really focusing is on reaching more students and having that be cost-effective.

The goal is not to have a showcase school in every school; that’s just not financially doable. So where we’ve been focusing is on our professional development. We run free professional development sessions where teachers, parents, and non-profit educators can sign up and come in and learn how to teach a garden lesson, how to teach a kitchen lesson, take home resources on how to start a garden — depending on what the topic is. But really training the trainer. So we’re giving teachers resources to be able to do this, whether they have a garden or not: shopping lists of everything they would need to know to run a garden or kitchen class, including the community-building perspective of getting volunteers and parents involved and the administration on board.

Children share a plate of greens.

What’s really exciting is that we’ve been approved by the Department of Ed for a second summer to teach their continued ed summer program. So, teachers can sign up for a 35-40 hour program to get credit for coming to our Brooklyn school, which they’re doing in July, and learning everything of how to start and keep a garden or kitchen program going, which includes not just how to start it but how to maintain it. We have sessions where we take our lesson plans and teachers have curriculum brainstorming, where they can actually start writing lessons. And that piece is really exciting, because it means the Department of Ed is saying that this education is a valuable and helpful thing for teachers across the city. Public school teachers don’t have enough hours in the day, and they don’t have enough time to come to our normal sessions, or if they did have time, they’d have to hire a sub. So this is a way for classroom teachers across the city to get to teach in the same way, which is awesome.

To what extent does the program depend on outside funding to build those kinds of structures, to keep it running?

We just threw our annual benefit — David Chang’s our main chef, so that actually is where we get a lot of our money for our operating costs. It’s a big benefit where 30 chefs come and cook for 400-plus people tableside. So, it’s April Bloomfield, it’s Danny Bowien — and Danny and David and a couple of other chefs come to the garden and teach the kids. He’s definitely involved with the program in a fun way. But most of our funding we get from grants. We have money from individuals and from corporations, and that is what runs our operating costs. Another piece is, we have some wonderful partners that help us with in-kind donations. All of the food that doesn’t come from the kitchen or the garden — which is extra produce but also any dry goods — comes from Baldor. We got wonderful donations from Brooklyn Kitchen and from Émile Henry for most of our equipment in the kitchen. And some generous donors, anonymous donors, and neighbors that have donated things like fridges and the toaster oven. So we’re able to keep our operation costs very low.

Aside from finding time and space to educate teachers, what are the other major challenges standing in the way of program expansion?

We really want these spaces to be community spaces, and we want them to be school spaces, and being able to reach the community across the board is something that we’re still trying to figure out. We had weekend family days where one family would show up. But now, we have someone who works on our volunteer and community outreach program who helps plan our events, because our teachers are now teaching full time, so they’re really busy during the day. So to have them take on all of the other pieces that I do, like working with the school, is a different conversation.

I would say, coming into Brooklyn, a challenge is, we didn’t necessarily know the conversations to have or the people we needed to talk to. And now I would say, one of the most important people to making a garden program accessible is your custodian. Because he is in charge of maintaining the space, so you need him or her to be on board. We now meet monthly with the principal, the assistant principal, the parent coordinator, parent association president, and the custodian. That, I would say, was definitely a challenge that we faced — and a reason that we’ve been more successful is communicating more. Now, three years in, we’re doing better. But communicating with those people that I just named is really important, because if you want the parents to be involved, you need to talk to the PA president and the parent coordinator. Because it’s the school’s garden — it’s not Edible Schoolyard’s garden after school.

Some things are really simple. We were throwing family cooking nights, from like 5 to 6:30, to try to get families more involved, and we had very low parent turnout for a long time. The families that did show up loved it, but we weren’t getting that great of a turnout, and they were very time-intensive because we would invite the entire fifth grade and haul everything down to the cafeteria. Now what we’ve done is, we’ve changed that to something called “Pick Up and Get Cooking,” which is a Thursday weekly after-school program at pick-up time, so right when the parents are there picking up their kids in Brooklyn, they come into the kitchen classroom and do a cooking activity as a family. And that is booked and very popular. So, even something as simple as changing the time — because of course, having parents go home, get settled, realize they have to get dinner ready, realize they don’t have time to come back, is one thing, but actually having them come straight from school is really convenient for them. So some of it is that easy.

Also, partnering more with the school. They have a fall and spring festival where they have a bouncy castle and music and face-painting in the parking lot, which is right next to the garden. So instead of having our own Edible Schoolyard garden day, we had this P.S. 216 big family day, and we opened up the garden, and we had a hundred people there. So I think the more we integrated with the school, the more we’ve been really successful.

We really think that where all of the change happens is that these kids who have had the program going for two or three years — the kids who came in pre-K, just having that be a part of the fabric of their school experience — will see the world a lot differently than kids that have never had this, but also kids that have only had it in fifth grade. It’s like taking the chocolate milk out of the lunch line. The kids that have had chocolate milk until high school are going to go crazy, but for the kids who have never had it, or had it for one year — or learned about what was in it and asked for it to be taken away — it’s a really different approach. So I think the long-term outcome that we’ll see is that sustainability is just part of what happens during the kids’ school day.

Now that kitchen and greenhouse belongs to and is part of the school. The students will always have that — even just the physical space. This will be something they can always utilize.

Correction (May 1 , 2014): This article has been updated to clarify the relationship between the Edible Schoolyard NYC and the Edible Schoolyard. The New York City program is affiliated with the national program, but it is an independent organization.

Anneliese Cooper is an entertainment writer at Bustle and a story editor at BKLYNR. She lives in Bushwick.

Christine Sanders is a freelance writer and producer from Los Angeles. She currently lives in Brooklyn.

Emily Frances is a documentary photographer and teaching artist based out of New York. She has been published by University of Chicago Press, Flying Kite Media, and Philadelphia Magazine.

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