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An innovative school in Queens, New York. [Photograph: Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School]

Sometimes I find it hard to feel optimistic about the future of our food system. Even when writing about successful initiatives, like the Child Nutrition Act or the FDA Food Safety Improvement Act, I feel obligated to temper the positive outlook with a more realistic paragraph on the limitations of sweeping policy.

But I recently heard about a school making the awareness of healthy eating and food production a goal for all of its students. Even my cynical side couldn't find a way to critique the good work at the Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School (MELS) in New York City.

MELS is a newly opened 6th through 12th grade school whose curriculum is based on the Expeditionary Learning education model. This model includes bringing students into the community, where they do fieldwork and interact with experts to enhance the learning experience. In the classroom, curricula across all subjects are broken down into approximately six-week long "expeditions", or overarching themes. The school's tagline, "A School for a Sustainable City," highlights their underlying message of being good to the environment and finding creative solutions to the problems of industrialization.

I must note that my younger brother just started at MELS in the fall and is thriving. I was inspired to further investigate the MELS program when I was taken aback at how much smarter he'd gotten in the past few months. And one of the things he couldn't stop talking about was industrial meat production.

What? Why was my 11-year-old brother talking like he was Marion Nestle? It soon came to my attention that the most recent expedition at MELS for the 6th grade was food. That's right. In every subject, for six weeks, kids were learning about food through an agricultural, scientific, cultural, and even musical lens. In their final presentation to parents and community members, the students demonstrated their understanding of how to eat right, address the problems of our food system, and sound darn smart doing it.

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Sixth graders learn how to forage with "The Wildman" Steve Brill. [Photograph: Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School]

I was so excited to hear about a food-based educational model (that isn't run by or in the shadow of Alice Waters) that I tracked down the school's principal, Damon McCord, to chat about how MELS made an educational leap I didn't think possible.

My Chat with MELS Principal Damon McCord

How did food come into play across subjects? Food is a great lens through which to look at history, nutrition, science. In English they read Chew on This [the kid's version of Fast Food Nation] and wrote persuasive speeches about industrial meat production. In Math they analyzed food miles. In Social Studies they looked at subsistence crops across countries and cultures. And in Science they studied corn and monocultures, Mad Cow disease, and local and seasonal eating. They did tons of field work.

How did you incorporate families and parents into this learning experience? I think a lot of kids are talking about [these issues] when they go home. A few weeks ago we had a well-attended family movie night where we screened Fresh, and we're probably going to do a larger screening in the spring with local restaurateurs and GrowNYC. I think it's been conversation provoking. But I don't know if there's been any real change yet—some parents will still send their kids to school with a Lunchables.

What food programming do you have in mind for the future? Will food stay on the 6th grade curriculum? Yeah, that's the plan at least. Food is an entry point for everybody, and it's super engaging. From a curricular standpoint, food is a really solid lens to explore different concepts. Going forward, we really want to pump up our relationship with GrowNYC. They offer really great programs for kids. So that's on the short-term radar. And then set up a nutrition committee to deal with the abomination that is our school lunch.

Ah, school lunch. How is it at MELS? Right now our school food is not good. It's heavily processed. I'm slowly but surely trying to get rid of chocolate milk with high fructose corn syrup. But healthy food takes time and money, and We're battling [the Department of Education] which feeds 1.1 million kids a day. You're never going to get kids to eat vegetables if pizza is right next to it—or chicken and rice, hamburgers and French fries. It's definitely something on our radar. But you can't do everything in the first year.

Tell me a little bit about your passion for food. I'm a Midwest boy, and growing up we ate meat and potatoes for every meal. When I first graduated college it was all Hamburger Helper and processed food. But my wife's brother is a chef, and once you start eating real food it's hard to go back. We eat almost exclusively from our local farmers' market, except for a few staples like coffee and sugar. I love to cook. I really embrace food rituals. And now, we're starting to create a food community among the teachers and families at the school.

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Students celebrate food and culture at the Harvest Feast. [Photograph: Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School]

The kids at MELS may not go out and garden every afternoon—heck, no one's gardening in New York in mid-January. But as my brother can demonstrate, they've learned more than their share about how food is produced and consumed both in the U.S. and internationally.

I am very optimistic about the future of MELS students' eating habits and hope other schools can incorporate similar models that successfully synthesize food and learning. For now, I just need to stay one step ahead of my food-policy-expert brother: I have a reputation to uphold, after all!

About the Author: A student in Providence, Rhode Island, Leah Douglas loves consuming and learning about as much food as possible. Her work is also featured in Rhode Island Monthly Magazine. She blogs at Feasting on Providence.

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