The kids at the Promise Academy in New York City, which opened in September 2004, have already won the lottery–the one that allowed them to attend the school. Sponsored by the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ) Project, this public charter school for grades K–12 focuses on the needs of inner-city children.
High on the list is the school’s obesity initiative. With 40% of their students overweight, nutrition isn’t an elective class, it’s integral to their education. Here’s the drill: kids are served breakfast and lunch at school–they are not permitted to leave school to eat. If children stay for after-school, they get a healthy snack. Those who stay later for academic help are served dinner as well. No outside food is allowed, no sugary desserts (just fruit), no vending machines. Each child is weighed, his or her body mass index is tracked, and exercise at school is non-negotiable.
Sound like boot camp? Not at all. Chef Andrew Benson makes it delicious and appealing. He and a staff of six cook 855 breakfasts and 855 lunches for two locations of the Promise Academy as well as a pre-kindergarten program also founded by HCZ. Benson draws inspiration from different ethnicities. The kids love tandoori chicken, beef lo mein and oven-fried chicken. He acquires local produce from Hudson Valley farmer Amy Hepworth, buys pizza (that contains 14 vitamins and nutrients) from a local producer in Pennsylvania and only serves hormone- and antibiotic-free milk and yogurt.
And it pays off. Benson tells of a sixth-grade girl who had never eaten broccoli. She finally tried it and came back for two more helpings. Sometimes, all a student needs is exposure. The school is sending kids to Hepworth’s farm and starting a rooftop garden so that students will know that vegetables don’t just come from the grocery store.
But there’s more to the story. Benson holds cooking classes for parents every Tuesday night. Plus, once a month there’s a farmers’ market at the school. Benson also teaches kindergarteners through third-graders, as well as middle-schoolers, to cook–yogurt parfaits with homemade granola are a favorite.
While Benson cooks much more than an average public-school chef, it doesn’t faze him. “I’m just happy to be doing what we’re doing,” he says. “This could be a movement around the country.”
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