Jessica Fu
For the next year, we’ll be investigating the state of food education in America’s schools. Here’s how one New York City high school is teaching the story of migration through a meal.

Culture Policy

You’d be remiss if you called this a cooking class.

Students wash their hands as instructors pass out cutting boards, knives, and ingredients for today’s lesson in food and culture, one segment of teacher Andrew Margon’s year-long food education course, at the High School for Environmental Studies in New York City.

At the front of the classroom, Chef Carolina Mendez from La Morada, a Oaxacan restaurant in the Bronx, heats up a tortilla in a pan. It’ll serve as the base for tlayudas, a sort of traditional Mexican pizza, which Mendez has come to teach the students to cook.

Through the making of a tlayuda, chef Carolina Saavedra teaches high school students a lesson on migration, history, and heritage. Credit: Jessica Fu, November 2018Jessica Fu

Through the making of a tlayuda, Chef Carolina Saavedra teaches high school students a lesson on migration, history, and heritage

A few feet away, Mendez’s sister Yajaira bounces Carolina’s infant daughter, who is preoccupied with a stuffed avocado toy, on her hip. But while food makes an obviously enticing centerpiece for this class’s curricula, taught in partnership with the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, it’s only about half an hour before the tlayudas take a back seat to the real lesson: a robust discussion about migration, heritage, and life as a chef.

The students sit attentively, asking questions about how the sisters’ life stories became intertwined with restaurant ownership, and wondering how their own interests might help them to make a living as cooks or restaurateurs someday. One student raises a hand. “I’m starting to think about college,” she says. “I feel like I have two interests that don’t go together, psychology and cooking. What advice would you give to me?”

A new kind of food ed course is taking hold in New York, one that focuses on the history, science, and culture of food, not just the making of it. Credit: Jessica Fu, November 2018Jessica Fu

A student sprinkles cheese on tlayudas made in class

“Those things do go together,” Carolina says. “Imagine needing to treat a patient with PTSD from crossing the border. Imagine being able to help that person cook food from their hometown. Imagine what type of comfort you could bring by helping them prepare something that reminds them of home.”

The sisters also stress the importance of using food as an anchor to strengthen ties with family and community.

“Part of being native and indigenous is reclaiming our food, saying what’s ours so others won’t take it,” Yajaira says. “Things you learn about food from your ancestors are as important as things you learn from someone with a Ph.D.”

The family story behind La Morada parallels the themes these students have devoured over the past few weeks. How might personal identity influence their impact in the food system, for instance? Next, they’ll learn about food’s intersection with the environment, followed by its clashes with power.

We observed the class as part of a larger survey The New Food Economy is undertaking on the state of food education in America’s schools, how it can be expanded to more classrooms, and adapted based on geography and demographics. What follows are the most striking and memorable moments we saw in food ed at this New York City high school.

Have a model we should know about? Tell us about it at hillary.bonhomme [at] newfoodeconomy.org and jessica.fu [@] newfoodeconomy.org.

~

A new kind of food ed course is taking hold in New York, one that focuses on the history, science, and culture of food, not just the making of it. Credit: Jessica Fu, November 2018Jessica Fu

Christopher Akinmurele, 16, junior talks to reporter Hillary Bonhomme about his experience in Food Ed: “Before this class, I was never interested in the history of food, it was always like, ‘This is what we ate because this is what we have.’ Thinking about it now, it’s more than it seems. Food is more than meets the eye. It’s about geological reasons, availability, economics—if you can’t afford it you can’t eat it.”

To make tlayudas, students spread black beans onto a warmed tortilla, then top it off with lettuce, tomatoes, avocado, and other dressings

A new kind of food ed course is taking hold in New York, one that focuses on the history, science, and culture of food, not just the making of it. Credit: Jessica Fu, November 2018Jessica Fu

Tenzen, junior: “Personally, food was just food for me in the beginning. I never thought of it as a metaphor for something bigger. When I ate dinner with my mom, I just thought this is food, but now, I recognize the history behind it. I know that my grandmother probably taught my mom. I became very curious about it all.”

A new kind of food ed course is taking hold in New York, one that focuses on the history, science, and culture of food, not just the making of it. Credit: Jessica Fu, November 2018Jessica Fu

America, 15, junior: “Food is a way for me to connect with my ancestors. I’ve never seen my grandparents, and it’s a way to be connected with them because we’re eating the same things.”

A new kind of food ed course is taking hold in New York, one that focuses on the history, science, and culture of food, not just the making of it. Credit: Jessica Fu, November 2018Jessica Fu

Carolina’s sister Yajaira helped teach the day’s lesson: “Things you learn about food from your ancestors are as important as things you learn from someone with a PhD.”

A new kind of food ed course is taking hold in New York, one that focuses on the history, science, and culture of food, not just the making of it. Credit: Jessica Fu, November 2018Jessica Fu

Seline, junior: “Before this class, before we started talking about culture, I never was in tune with my culture. I don’t know how to speak Spanish. Since I’ve been in this class, it affected me in an emotional way. Now, I feel left out at the idea of not being in tune with my culture compared to people that are more connected.”

A new kind of food ed course is taking hold in New York, one that focuses on the history, science, and culture of food, not just the making of it. Credit: Jessica Fu, November 2018Jessica Fu

Students add finishing touches, like cheese and sour cream, to their tlayudas

A new kind of food ed course is taking hold in New York, one that focuses on the history, science, and culture of food, not just the making of it. Credit: Jessica Fu, November 2018Jessica Fu

Finished tlayudas

hillary bonhomme

Hillary Bonhomme

Hillary Bonhomme is The New Food Economy's multimedia producer and reporter. Before joining the team, she produced content for several non-profit entities, including WNYC, WQXR, and Creative Capital. Outside of her work at The New Food Economy, Hillary is active as a musician and has taken the stage at National Sawdust, Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival, and The Jerome L. Greene Space. Reach her by email at: hillary.bonhomme@newfoodeconomy.org

Jessica Fu

Jessica Fu

Jessica is a news producer and reporter for The New Food Economy. Reach her by email at: jessica.fu@newfoodeconomy.org

Sign up for our Newsletter

Get a weekly dish of features, commentary and insight from the food movement’s front lines.