BAM! Connecting students and community to a healthy lifestyle

With generous funding from the Emeril Lagasse Foundation and Florida Hospital for Children, the garden-to-classroom concept evolved into a public charity with the sole focus of edible education.

Back in 2003, the seedling of a simple idea took root at Orlando Junior Academy (OJA) in College Park. OJA parent Brad Jones helped a first grade teacher turn a grassy patch into a vegetable garden outside the classroom door.

“When my daughter started learning about nature, she learned the typical icons taught in school: apple trees in the summer and snowflakes and dead branches in the winter,” explains Jones.

“But she couldn’t relate to that in Florida. I wondered how teachers could use something right outside the classroom, like an orange tree, to teach Florida students. I started thinking about how to develop a campus that uses nature as a teaching tool.”

Once the project got the green light, Jones began volunteering as garden coordinator, where he helped students plant, grow, and harvest fruit, vegetables, herbs, and even cotton. But now that kids were learning where food comes from, they yearned to know what to do with it.

Enter Kevin Fonzo, Chef-Owner of K Restaurant in College Park, and Sarah Cahill, certified raw food chef and holistic nutrition coach.

These two local chefs picked up where the harvest left off by volunteering to teach weekly cooking classes to OJA’s 5th-8th graders. Using the garden’s bounty, the chefs brought healthy cooking to life in a makeshift kitchen classroom lacking essentials such as hot water and a stove.

As the garden expanded and cooking classes added, the “edible education” concept grew in complexity and popularity, with amazing results.

“The best barometer of success is when you hear a parent say, ‘I can’t believe my child loves broccoli,’” Fonzo says.

“We’re teaching moderation, healthy alternatives, and how to cook from scratch. Kids are just blown away that the stuff you can buy in store, like pasta sauce, you can make yourself.”

The project has since blossomed into a full-blown, hands-on, integrated curriculum where teachers creatively cull lessons from science, math, history, and language arts through gardening and cooking.

But with growth came some growing pains, as the cooking class once faced elimination.

“What began as a pilot program with no funding became a Board-approved program when students started a petition to save the cooking class,” points out Cahill.

“The entire fifth grade signed it, with the teacher turning it into a lesson on the power of petition. This student support, plus sponsorship from Whole Foods Market, catapulted edible education to the next level.”

With generous funding from the Emeril Lagasse Foundation and Florida Hospital for Children, the garden-to-classroom concept evolved into a 501(c)3 public charity named Edible Education Experience, which would be housed in a one-of-a-kind facility built with the sole focus of edible education.

children learn to cook in kitchen The project has since blossomed into a full-blown, hands-on, integrated curriculum where teachers creatively cull lessons from science, math, history, and language arts through gardening and cooking. (Photo: Edible Education Experience)

Fast forward to 2017, when the Emeril Lagasse Foundation Kitchen House & Culinary Garden officially debuted as the new home where edible education takes place.

Located across from OJA, the 3,500-square-foot Kitchen House features a commercial kitchen classroom with four hands-on cooking stations, including food prep and hand-washing sinks, two gas ovens, refrigerator, and freezer. Outside, a 1,000-square-foot garden yields crops to use in its edible education programs.

“We’re rooted in the Edible Schoolyard philosophy started by Alice Waters in Berkley, California,” explains Janice Banks, the nonprofit’s Executive Director. “This three-pronged approach focuses on cooking, gardening, and a healthy lunch program, and our nonprofit slowly grew out of that.”

With its new space, Edible Education Experience can serve more of the community through field trips, after-school enrichment, summer camps, Chef Night, and community gardening. Plus, the nonprofit can expand its Teachers Academy where educators learn how to start gardens and cooking classes in their own schools.

What works here might be duplicated across the country, as the Emeril Lagasse Foundation looks to Edible Education Experience as a signature project.

According to Brian Kish, the Foundation’s President: “The Edible Education Experience at OJA will be a unique and model learning program, and we’ve recognized a need for this type of initiative on a national level. We hope to build upon the lessons learned at this specific project as a model for a nationwide signature program focused on teaching kids how to apply their academic lessons in the real-world environment of growing, preparing and cooking food.”

And this all grew from the seedling of a simple idea.

A version of this story was previously published in Edible Orlando in their Winter 2017 issue.

writer Iisa beach head shot

Lisa Beach is a freelance writer covering lifestyle topics such as food, travel, family, health and wellness. Her work has been published in The New York Times, Eating Well, Good Housekeeping, USA Today Go Escape, Parents, and dozens more. With 30 years at the keyboard, Lisa’s passion is crafting content that makes a positive difference in the world. Check out her writer’s website at www.LisaBeachWrites.com, and follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

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