Learn from a Leader: Bring healthy cooking to the classroom!

Many factors contribute to our health, including genetic predispositions, access to quality medical treatment, and even the amount of sleep we get.

But have you ever thought about how your neighborhood affects your health?

“Social determinants of health” is the term for every external condition in which we are born, grow, work, and age. These include our relationships with family and friends, our employment opportunities and experiences, our socioeconomic status, and—of particular interest to ioby—our neighborhood amenities, like public transit, affordable fresh food, exercise options, and nutrition education. People who live in zip codes that have these things are likely to enjoy good health; in areas without them, residents are likely to struggle with with chronic illnesses like obesity and diabetes.

The good news about these social determinants of health is that we have the power to change them! Every day, citizen leaders are taking small steps toward big change by making their neighborhoods healthier, one block at a time. And this summer, ioby is partnering with the New York State Health Foundation to help local leaders in nine areas throughout the state get their ideas for healthy change off the ground by providing fundraising training and dollar-for-dollar matching funds! Read more about the Healthy Neighborhoods Challenge and how to apply.

Want to get involved but need some inspiration? Our Healthy Neighborhoods Challenge Learn from a Leader blog series is profiling past ioby Leaders whose projects exemplify what we’re looking for from applicants: projects that focus on healthy food, active transport, green spaces, fighting disease, or some combination. Read on, and imagine how your neighborhood could benefit!


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About the project:

Residents of neighborhoods that lack fresh produce develop diet-related diseases more frequently than people who have access to fresh food. For some families, the most convenient—and affordable—meals come from fast food restaurants and bodegas, making alternatives seem out of reach. But teaching young people how to source and cook healthy food early in life can set them on a path to break that mold.

“Our health is in our own hands. We have the knowledge,” says Stacey Murphy, Director of BK Farmyards and leader of the project Cooking the New $1 Menu: Straight from the Farm, which brought nutrition education and healthy cooking classes to high school students in Brooklyn. “Our approach was ‘health and nutrition for bodies, community, and planet,’ ” she says. “We wanted to get the kids tasting and trying new things to get them invested. Once people embody something, they start living it.”




The steps:

  1. Take stock & team up. It’s a big process to bring cooking into a classroom that hasn’t done it before. Whether you’re a parent, teacher, or neighborhood volunteer, assess your school’s resources and generate a team—that includes students. Think through the logistics: What can you prep, cook, eat, and clean up in an hour? Is there a student with a free period who can help you before or after the class? Where can you store your kitchen equipment when you’re not using it? Plan a routine, and revise it as you go.
  2. Crowdsource your curriculum goals. Engage students in asking what kind of health lessons they want to learn, then devise your recipes from there. Are they saying: “I’ve never used a knife” or “I’ve never measured anything”? Do they want to know if there’s any such thing as “healthy chocolate”? Are they asking what people mean by “Fair Trade”? Spend your first class determining what they want to know, then design a realistic, age-appropriate curriculum that aims to address their questions.
  3. The right tools for the job. If you bring knives into a high school, the very first thing you have to do is teach students how to use them—and explain that any unsafe use will mean no participation. Make the lessons more useful by trying to replicate what students are likely to have at home: keep it simple. And use recipes that provide something for everyone to do: one person can measure, another can chop, another can stir, all at the same time. This will illustrate that many pieces have to come together to make a meal, and keep everyone engaged.
  4. Start small. Don’t make a whole meal your first time; start with something simple, like salsa. No cooking required, and it’s easy to put together and taste immediately, but students can learn how to use a knife properly (and how the term “season to taste” can create a variety of outcomes from the same recipe). Learning basic techniques at the start, like cutting, will free up time later to make more complex foods.
  5. Make good habits. It’s important that students have time to taste the food, talk about why they like or don’t like it, and clean up in each class—those are all healthy habits for life! So make it a point to clean up before eating, emphasize food-related vocabulary, and show students how they can (and must) work as a team to make their meals a success.


BK Farmyards in school



Every school is different, but you’ll always need time to take inventory of its cooking spaces and equipment; to learn students’ comfort levels around things like knives and measuring; for permission slips to be sent home and come back; to find out about any allergies and avoid those ingredients; etc. It will take a good couple of months at least to get everyone on the same page.



This varies so widely! To get an idea…

– Set your curriculum first, so you know what equipment you’ll need. We went with metal utensils and ceramic plates, but paper and plastic might be a better choice for you.

– You probably won’t need a knife and cutting board for each student; maybe one per four or five.

– Some schools will go all out to provide you with materials; others can’t or won’t. Consider bringing in your own tools from home, or borrowing them, to save costs.

– Remember to think about keeping all students engaged during the lesson—a shortage of tools is boredom in the making.



Additional resources:

The Food Project Toolbox’s books, manuals, and activities are a great place to start—especially their French Fries and the Food System: A Year Round Curriculum Connecting Youth with Farming and Food.

The Youth Farm, one of NYC’s largest urban farm sites, provides training opportunities to youth and adults, and increases local options for fresh, affordable produce.

The Nourish Curriculum Guide offers a rich set of resources to open a meaningful conversation about food and sustainability.

– Instead of fishing for a complete curriculum, try searching for individual recipes and create your own program. Also think about age-appropriateness: there might be good lessons for teens in a recipe written for kindergarteners. You can adapt it!
Stacey Murphy


About the author:

Stacey Murphy has taught hundreds of teens and adults how to grow, harvest, and prepare fresh foods. She is a recovering engineer and architect turned garden geek and farm nerd. Stacey founded BK Farmyards, a cooperative of urban farmers in Brooklyn dedicated to social justice through urban agriculture, and helped create over an acre of new farmyards in Brooklyn. She’s been featured on Martha Stewart Radio, PBS online, and once appeared on the David Letterman show with a giant radish. She envisions a world where everyone is nourished by the magic of fresh, affordable, and culturally-exciting food… extra points if it’s homegrown. Sign up for online classes and events at FarmyardBootcamp.com.


Feeling fired up about cooking in the classroom, or another project that could make your neighborhood healthier? Learn more about the Healthy Neighborhoods Challenge and apply for fundraising training and matching dollars now!