Michelle Obama paid a visit to Philip’s Academy Charter School on Central Avenue in Newark yesterday as part of her American Garden tour, which is taking her from city to city to highlight community and school-based gardens around the country. She planted a vegetable garden on the South Lawn of the White House in 2009 to start a national conversation about health and wellness.
Mrs. Obama first toured the school’s 4,500 square foot garden rooftop. Then she visited its cafeteria to see the Aerofarms hydroponic indoor growing lab and enjoy a light sit down meal with about a half dozen students. The “Today” show’s Al Roker joined students at an adjacent table.
Mrs. Obama made conversation with her young dining companions, asking them about their favorite foods, hearing details about their experience at the school, and answering their questions in turn. (What we learned: squash is her favorite soup, Mexican her favorite cuisine, and pizza her all-time favorite dish.)
While the encounter will likely become a standout memory for the students who participated, Mrs. Obama’s visit also highlighted the success of EcoSpaces, Philip’s Academy’s food-based curriculum, whose rising profile warranted her visit in the first place.
“[The EcoSpaces] program is what brings a lot of students and families to the school,” said Dale Anglin, who chairs the school’s board of trustees, and whose son attended the school. “It’s what the school is known for, and it’s what the kids like,” she continued.
EcoSpaces leverages hands-on learning techniques and features instruction in gardening — including advanced gardening techniques involving hydroponics — and cooking. That instruction anchors much of the Philip’s Academy curriculum and ethos.
The school’s rooftop garden supports its teaching kitchen, where students learn about food chemistry by preparing, serving and eating it. Meals are eaten family style at circular tables in the school’s cafeteria to facilitate positive interaction. Philip’s Academy’s farm stand helps teach the students business fundamentals and connects the school and curriculum to their families. And the menus themselves are specially developed onsite and meant to expand students’ palates and connect them with what produce is in season.
The curriculum also encourages an essential lost art, said Frank Mentesena, director of the EcoSpaces program. A lot of people are “not sure what it takes to get food from the ground,” he said, referring to the fact that in a world of big agriculture, many of us simply don’t know how to grow our own food. Philip’s Academy’s students, by contrast, understand how food is grown, how it makes its way to their tables, and how consuming it manifests health and wellness outcomes.
And the effects of that deeply integrated instruction manifested during Mrs. Obama’s visit. The students bantered fluently about healthy foods and growing techniques over their granola and beet smoothies. Seventh grader Kelsey Roberson, who asked Mrs. Obama what her favorite soup is, later described the experience as “surreal” — and as a good time.
“It was really fun,” Kelsey said. “I can’t believe that Michelle Obama was actually at my school.”