Growing Kids’ Appetites for Healthy Food

Social Justice

The STAR School, a charter school on the border of the Navajo Nation Native American Reservation in Arizona, has a tradition. Each year they give their graduating class of eighth graders the freedom to pick the menu for their celebratory feast.

The typical eighth grader’s dream meal probably doesn’t prove to be overly nutritious. And in Navajo Nation in particular, diet-related illness is common. Junk food is prevalent, vegetables are a rarity, and childhood diabetes and obesity run rampant. The reservation is the size of West Virginia yet contains only ten grocery stores. Despite all this, for the first time the eighth graders at STAR School chose to serve kale.

“They had total choice,” says Mark Sorenson, co-founder of the school. “They could have picked soda. That kind of blew our minds."

Navajo Nation is the largest Native American reservation in the United States, sparsely populated and largely impoverished. Forty-three percent of its population lives below the poverty line and many homes do not have electricity or running water.

This enthusiasm for healthy eating is not the norm in many parts of the United States. But at STAR School, students are quick to talk to you about their love of vegetables and the most eager kids have to be reminded not to eat produce straight out of the ground. This is the direct result of STAR School’s relentless commitment to food education—and a key ingredient in that success is FoodCorps.

Funded in part by Americorps, FoodCorps is a nonprofit that trains service members in food and gardening education before sending them to schools around the country. The service members receive a modest stipend from FoodCorps while teaching students how to grow, cook, and appreciate fresh food.

Ideally, service members are recruited locally so as not to send a stranger into a foreign environment. Such is the case with Tyrone Thompson, the FoodCorps service member at STAR School. Navajo himself, Thompson has two children enrolled. Small but important details like this make FoodCorps effective, and it’s one of many reasons that STAR School’s focus on food education has been such a success.

Tyrone Thompson, a FoodCorps service member, at the Star School with his two children.

Teaching Children to Like the Food

Food education has always been a priority at STAR School—from its start the school promoted healthy food, and it’s had a greenhouse on campus since long before Thompson joined the school. But that wasn’t enough.

“We had to teach the children to like the food,” says Sorenson. “They won’t try vegetables unless they see their peers doing it.”

Students at STAR School transplant lettuce plants to cold-boxes (small outdoor greenhouses), harvest greens from the hydroponics system and greenhouses, and clean the lettuce for lunch in the cafeteria. “You have to realize that the cafeteria is a classroom too,” said Mark Sorenson, STAR School’s co-founder.

To combat this common problem at schools around the country, FoodCorps’ primary solution is to integrate classes on gardening and cooking. The program has found that once kids participate in the entire process of making a meal, they’re excited to indulge in the fruits of their labor. But because different schools have different needs, another of FoodCorps’ strengths is its adaptability.

By having students help cultivate greens and vegetables, FoodCorps hopes to inspire enthusiasm for healthy foods.

“Every school is so different,” says Jerusha Klemperer, co-founder of FoodCorps. “Its about taking this model that’s intended to be the same around the country and figuring out how to implement it in places that are wildly different.”

At STAR School, FoodCorps provides funding and training to an extremely motivated and experienced community member, which the school would otherwise have no way to financially support. Thompson has taken initiative beyond introducing kids to kale. He upgraded the existing greenhouses and produce drying shack, built an outdoor cooking station with two traditional Navajo clay ovens and two rows of additional smaller greenhouses, and developed a hydroponic system from the ground up. Soon he’ll finish building an aquaponics system—a hydroponic system that gets its nutrients from fish that live within the contained environment—all with students’ help.

Tyrone has built and improved much of the agricultural and culinary infrastructure for STAR school, enriching the food-education experience of the students. Since joining the school a year ago, Tyrone has upgraded the greenhouses and produce drying shacks, built a hydroponic system and an outdoor cooking station with two traditional Navajo earth-ovens, and will soon finish building an aquaponics system—all with the help of the students.

Circumstances surrounding STAR School may seem unique, but the problems it faces are common across the United States. Poor, less educated communities can’t afford to include food education in their public schools; this perpetuates a cycle of putting these children at a much higher risk of obesity than kids in high-income, well-educated communities. FoodCorps is addressing the problem from the ground up, and STAR School is a great example of their best efforts.

Scenes from the Kitchen

One chilly morning in November, a group of fifth graders huddle around the earthen stoves Thompson built outside. Earlier that morning they mixed the dough for traditional Navajo blue corn biscuits. Earlier that week they chopped the juniper wood that fueled the ovens, and earlier that year they planted the kale that was picked and pressed into the biscuits that now baked in the ovens.

Students are involved in every stage of making a traditional Navajo feast. From chopping wood to fuel earth-ovens, to growing many of the greens and vegetables used in recipes, to mixing blue corn dough, and cooking mutton stew. "The Navajo people can be an example of a healthy sustainable community and it starts with education,” Tyrone said.

Thompson reaches into the oven and retrieves a pan packed with steaming blue lumps topped with toasted kale leaves. The kids rush in to smell the biscuits while one boy stands aside with a proud look on his face.

Thompson, grinning, indicates the boy. “It was his idea to use the kale leaves.”