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FoodPrints in the Classroom

“I want more broccoli!” That’s certainly not a common childhood refrain, but it’s one I was amused to hear during a recent visit to Capitol Hill’s School Within School (SWS) @ Goding. Thanks to the FoodPrints program, students are learning how to grow, prepare and eat nutritious and organic produce – even broccoli.

FoodPrints is a program of FRESHFARM, a DC-based nonprofit organization that promotes sustainable agriculture and improves food access and equity in the mid-Atlantic region. Staffed by certified teachers, nutritionists, chefs and local food experts, FoodPrints aims to improve the health and academic outcomes of children and their families in partnership with DC schools. FoodPrints began in 2012 and now serves some 4,300 students in schools across the District.

The FoodPrints “classroom” at SWS includes a stove, cabinets, a dishwasher, a washer/dryer unit and a worm compost bin. All 310 SWS students participate in the program – pre-K3 through fifth grade, including medically fragile students. Every class goes on a monthly “in-school field trip,” which includes gardening, cooking, eating and an academic lesson.

Margi Finneran is the FoodPrints instructor at SWS. One look at her in her FoodPrints kitchen tells you that she has found her dream job. “After my daughter was born, I became more interested in healthy cooking. I also realized how happy we both were working in the garden. I wished all kids could benefit from this experience. I began working at SWS [then located at Peabody Elementary] in 2010 as a classroom assistant. When SWS moved to the Goding location, I was offered the FoodPrints lead teacher position.”

Presentation is everything. Margi Finneran puts the finishing touches on food that the students have prepared. Photo: C. Plume

Finneran comes to FoodPrints with some impressive credentials. A graduate of the culinary school at Johnson & Wales in Providence, R.I., she worked as a pastry chef at the White House for 17 years and at the US ambassador’s residence in London. 

While Finneran is used to preparing food for some elite audiences with delicate taste buds, even she’s been surprised by students’ enthusiasm for the program and their willingness to try new foods. “One of my favorite memories is when I first made lentil shepherd’s pie with rutabaga, cabbage and carrots and lentils in place of traditional lamb or beef. Frankly, I wasn’t sure the students would like it, but it was a hit. I had parents telling me that they had to go purchase the ingredients right after school so they could make it at home that night!”

Lentil shepherd’s pie is just one of the recipes DC Public Schools is using in its pilot program, “FoodPrints Days,” a partnership with FRESHFARM to serve FoodPrints recipes in the cafeteria at lunch on Wednesdays at SWS, Ludlow-Taylor, Tyler and Francis-Stevens elementary schools.

Eating good food is just a small part of the FoodPrints program. During each field trip, students participate in an age-appropriate seasonal lesson about gardening, health/nutrition or environmental topics. They get their hands dirty in the school garden by planting, weeding, watering and eventually harvesting their crops. They then prepare these crops, supplemented with produce from FRESHFARM markets, according to recipes – chopping, measuring and mixing food into delicious (and beautiful) concoctions.

At the end of each FoodPrints session, students and teachers eat the meal together, using reusable plates, cutlery and napkins. Everyone helps with the cleanup, with leftover food scraps added to the compost, which is eventually applied to the garden beds.

As Finneran notes, “FoodPrints provides so many practical applications of reading, science and math. Students get excited when they see these connections for themselves. People live such hectic lives these days. Many families just don’t make or have time for a sit-down meal. I love seeing how the school community of both families and staff comes together in the FoodPrints kitchen. I know many of my fellow FoodPrints teachers at other schools feel this way, too.”

But, as with any nonprofit organization, secure and ongoing funding is a challenge. While SWS is fortunate to have strong parent support and fundraising for the program, year-to-year funding for FoodPrints is always a challenge, especially as the program seeks to expand into more schools. Yet, it provides life skills in food cultivation, preparation and nutritious eating. As Finneran notes, “Food is medicine, and the best medicine is fresh food. If children don’t know about or have access to healthy food, how can they be ready to learn?” 

Are you ready for some broccoli? All family-friendly FoodPrints recipes are available at www.freshfarm.org/foodprints-recipes. Bon appetit!


Catherine Plume is a lifelong environmentalist, a writer and a blogger for the DC Recycler: www.DCRecycler.blogspot.com; Twitter: @DC_Recycler. She is a board member and conservation chair of the DC Chapter of the Sierra Club, but the perspectives expressed here are her own and do not necessarily represent the positions of that organization.

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