- The New York nonprofit Chefs for Impact is working to educate people about sustainable eating.
- Its program Chefs for Kids created a garden where children learn agriculture and culinary skills.
- This article is part of “Better Me,” a series about improving your lifestyle and helping society through sustainable efforts and eco-consciousness.
The small garden in the Rutgers Community Center in New York City was dilapidated.
Dead leaves, weeds, and rats overtook the small plot where abandoned garden beds and dirty water cans sat unattended. But it has flourished into a haven for young children learning to grow, harvest, and prepare food — and for many, it’s their first time practicing these skills.
Chefs for Impact, a nonprofit focused on food education and sustainability, partnered with Grand St. Settlement on Manhattan’s Lower East Side to repair the urban garden in April 2021. One of its programs, Chefs for Kids, directly connects children with elite chefs to teach them about agriculture and culinary skills.
“It’s a small garden, but you’d be amazed at how much we grow,” Theodora Fontas, Chef for Impact’s general manager, told Insider. “Planting the seeds of sustainability in these children’s minds is something that once it’s there, it’s only going to continue to grow and be nourished.”
Fontas added: “It’s a good weed that you can’t stop.”
Food insecurity continues to affect children and families across NYC, even 2 years after the onset of the pandemic
Chefs for Kids burgeoned at a time when many New Yorkers were facing food insecurity.
Amy Huang, program director of Grand St. Settlement, told Insider that most children in the Chefs for Kids classes were part of the Grand St. Settlement after-school program. She said 70 to 75% of the program’s students lived in New York City Housing Authority developments around the Lower East Side.
“Chefs for Kids is teaching them ideas they never really heard of before,” Huang said.
City Harvest reported that visits to local food pantries and soup kitchens were up 69% in 2022 compared with 2019 and up 14% since January, when inflation led to a food-price surge. According to a report from the NYC Food Policy Center, Feeding America found that 17.9% of Lower East Side and Chinatown residents faced food insecurity in 2021.
Fontas said the urban garden was a focal point of the curriculum, which is guided by the seasons, so children could have a hands-on approach that would resonate with them year-round.
In class, children can learn about herbs’ medicinal properties, hydroponics, ways to prepare peppers, sustainable food, and recipes they can take home with them.
The results are a group of children critically thinking about their food consumption.
“We are in a health crisis right now, both for the planet and personal health,” Fontas said. “By teaching people from a young age, we have the best chance of reversing these poor health effects.”
The urban garden partners with seasoned chefs who teach the children the ins and outs of food. The influence has spread far beyond the classroom.
Once a seed is planted, children can watch it grow to completion and then learn how to prepare it. The classes are spearheaded by Kristina Ramos, a chef educator whose experience in fine dining includes roles at Eleven Madison Park and the Michelin-starred restaurant Auberge La Fenière.
“The students were excited because it was something for them to take care of,” Fontas said. “They got to see it start from literally nothing to tomatoes, zucchini, squash, strawberries, and radishes.”
Fontas and Huang have seen the fruits of their labor in real time.
“When the kids take home the vegetables, they tell us they cooked it with their parents,” Fontas said. “Those moments might seem like small wins, but they’re actually huge.”
Huang said the program had helped introduce composting to many children.
“Half of our kids didn’t even know what that word means,” Huang said. “Now we have parents getting involved and dropping off banana peels, just so we can put them in the fridge and the garden.”
And, perhaps most notably, installing the urban garden gives children a sense of independence.
“By giving them the tools and, more importantly, the confidence to know what is good for them and how to prepare it themselves, you’re teaching independence,” Fontas said. “This might sound hyperbolic, but it’s revolutionary.”
Better Me tips for sustainable living
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