Making Curriculum Pop

Eating Our Way Through School: Using food in the Gastronomy, English or Social Studies classroom

There is a lot of talk these days about edible gardens and the National School Lunch program which is why I think the time is ripe to implement gastronomy curricula into classrooms across the country. If Michael Pollan is right and we have a "national eating disorder," then it's crucial we cultivate our kids' tastes for good food from a young age. And while planting gardens is a rewarding way to connect kids back to their food source, we also have to teach them as they get older that their choices have lasting impacts on their health, the environment, and so much more. But it's equally important to teach them with an attitude of appreciation, not alarmism.

I teach a full load of English classes to many awesome and talented students at the High School for Math, Science and Engineering at CCNY in New York City. But I try to extend my students' learning beyond the essential five-paragraph essays and literary devices. The idea is to push them past the limits of the page to grasp and discuss the passions -- and all the good food! -- of life. We celebrate out students' individuality, but they also need to know what we all have in common: our short lives and our simple joys. As James Beard said, "Food is our common ground, a universal experience." So I thought why not address these commonalities through the study of food?

So in addition to the English classes I teach, I created an elective gastronomy program which is heavy on reading in the classroom, but also exploring the good food options outside of the classroom as well. We cover a range of topics from the implications of our industrial food system on the environment and food insecurity to sustainable farming, "seasonal shopping," and locally produced food. I want to teach the students to have a greater respect for the natural cycle of life -- an awareness of what, when and where our earth produces -- so they can make mindful choices about consuming food and preserving traditions and recognize, most importantly, their (our) accountability to future generations.

Hands-on experiences are really crucial to this learning process and New York City is a endless source of thoughtful purveyors, producers, markets and taste makers. We often invite guests into the classroom like the creators of the films, King Corn and Big River, Rick Field, the founder of Rick's Picks, to chef Daniel Rose, the owner of Spring restaurant in Paris. We run weekly taste workshops to acquaint ourselves with and appreciate the traditional ways of making foods: honey, chocolate, olive oil, vinegar, you name it, we'll taste it! We'll take cooking lessons in any kitchen that will have us, tour local farms and markets, and every week our EatNYC club (an offshoot of the Gastronomy class) will try a new cuisine or neighborhood around the city.

We read a host of food lit, from the non-fiction of Michael Pollan (Omnivore's Dilemma), Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation) to the memoirs of MFK Fisher. We also watch a bunch of documentaries including Food, Inc. and King Corn. There are so many ways to integrate food into the curriculum that it's difficult to list in just one post. And while I teach Gastronomy as a separate discipline, I've recently brought many of the lessons into my English Lit elective as well. Here is an example:

The NYU Hagpop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies here in NYC is a great source of information and I recently attended a workshop there and came out with a handful of fun ways to use food to study Middle Eastern cultures and identities. To accompany a recent tasting of falafel, we read the essay, National Icon, by Yael Raviv (Gastronomica, Summer 2003, Vol. 3, No. 3, Pages 20?25, DOI 10.1525/gfc.2003.3.3.20) which explores the cultural significance of falafel. While falafel originally hails from Egypt and is considered an Arab food, the state of Israel used it as a means of asserting a national identity post 1948. There is also a host of both Israeli and Palestinian examples of food in art and advertisements (such as Jaffa oranges or olive trees) used to establish a culture and a sense of nationhood, even when borders were (are) fragile. Pair this with readings of the poems, "Mobius-Trip", by Jo Milgrom and "Olive Jar" by Naomi Shihab Nye to further explore more questions of food and identity. Here is another useful link about Palestinian food. Finally, the award-winning short film, West Bank Story, is a hilarious but thoughtful way to tie it all together.

Back in the Gastronomy class, I just recently started a new unit on Food and TV. I'm using the book, Watching What We Eat by Kathleen Collins, as a way of understanding and exploring the way Food TV has been a litmus of America's taste. The shift in cooking shows from education (with James Beard and Julia Child) to entertainment (Graham Kerr), really set the stage for later live audience shows like Emeril Lagasse and reality shows like Top Chef and acts as an indicator of our tastes and lifestyles. Cooking is not just a necessity or a chore, but a means of creative expression and status. Food TV also tells us quite a bit about women's roles from the kitchen to the workplace. Collins' book is a fantastically thorough resource and she posts great video clips on her blog above.

I think we need to make a subgroup for Food studies on this site, right? If anyone has done anything cool with food, I would love to hear about it. In the meantime, check out the pictures on our Facebook page, HSMSE Gastronomy Eats NYC, to see what we're doing in our classroom.


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Comment by Jennifer Putzer on October 18, 2011 at 11:15pm

Hi Jen,

 I teach grades K through 8 about gardening and nutrition. Currently, I am trying to organize a fundraiser to generate the money I need to teach the kids about the current and future possibilities in green jobs. I currently am trying to install a green roof on our toolshed. The list could go on and on. I love all of your ideas and will continue to check out your blog!! Another Jen shouting out from Oakland, CA.

Comment by Jill L. Schuepfer on February 6, 2011 at 8:36pm

As a FACS teacher, I find that students really enjoy learning about the origins of food as it relates to their daily lives - for example, with Valentine's Day approaching, learning all about the cocoa bean. I think that visiting the restaurant, Seasons 52, would be a great field trip because the menu changes seasonally, entrees are under 500 calories, and only fresh herbs and spices are used.






Comment by Hillary Hershey on July 29, 2010 at 4:50pm
Jen, I'm a graduate students getting my master's in education, and will begin my student teaching in the fall. I'm always looking for new ideas and fun activities to incorporate into the classroom, and I love yours! What a great way to get make connections between the classroom and real life, and get kids to think about nutrition at the same time! I will definitely tuck this one into my pocket for future use :) Thank you!
Comment by Jen Boylan on July 28, 2010 at 9:19am
Thanks, Mike. I will absolutely check out her blog.
Comment by Mike Gange on July 28, 2010 at 7:21am
very interesting idea. Do you know about Melinda Hemmlegarn – well-known
health-nutritionist, columnist, lecturer, television host and producer of “Food Sleuths,”and strong media literacy advocate to help combat obesity in young people while developing health literacy through critical thinking
about food safety and environmentally sound food choices.
Comment by Ryan Goble on June 28, 2010 at 10:49am
Nice interdisciplinary link in Trib today - Consumers are buying into organic farms
Comment by Jen Boylan on June 12, 2010 at 11:15am
Hi Colleen,

I would love to chat. Your course seems great and it's crucial more teachers take this subject matter on!
Feel free to email me at We can talk more.
Comment by Colleen Gavan on June 9, 2010 at 6:34pm
I'd love to talk more about this. I focus on food in my urban ecology (environmental science) course. We read a lot of the same texts and watch the same films as you. We did a project based on the book 'what the world eats' (photographs of families with a week's worth of food). I also have an Iron Chef 'goes green' cooking contest each semester, which is always a lot of fun. Here's a link to my website and here's a link to the "What SD Eats" project that we did.
Comment by Wisdom on June 8, 2010 at 8:29am
What a great way to incorporate high-interest, thoughtful texts! I can see a team-taught class with Applied Arts as an elective!
Comment by Pam Goble on June 7, 2010 at 12:51pm
Loved the idea, Jen!!!


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