Late last spring, a gaggle of third graders made their way up a hill to a chicken coop, where they skittered past the birds to gather a couple of eggs from laying boxes in a pasture. One of the kids cried; the only prior interaction she’d had with farm animals was via a few field trips like this one, and she was scared of the hens that clustered around her buddies and pecked at their feet. Later, the class ate hard-boiled eggs collected from the very same chickens while they recounted lessons they’d learned in the field, and after that, they visited the chicks, putting together the cycle of life for one part of the farm, and, in the process, gaining understanding of where their food comes from.
The trip was one of several the class took that year as part of a partnership between Wellness in the Schools (WITS), Chipotle, and Stone Barns, a trifecta that came together to give urban classrooms experience with agriculture that they would likely never see otherwise, in hopes that the lessons will encourage the kids to forgo processed snacks for whole foods. With the start of the school year, the cycle begins again, and another class will have the chance to see the seasonal changes at the farm.
While WITS and Stone Barns run educational outreach with several schools and groups of kids, Chipotle brought this unique program together, sponsoring the WITS program at PS 69 in the Bronx, and adding these farm trips as a way to deepen the wellness curriculum. “We have a partnership with Stone Barns as part of our local marketing program,” says Mariana Cotlear, the New York marketing strategist for Chipotle. “We admire the center for education, learning, and sustainable agriculture, and we have supported their Young Farmer’s Conference. They align really well with our Food With Integrity mission.”
Chipotle has also worked with WITS for about three years, supporting its reach within the school food issue space in New York City. “WITS is in about 50 public schools around New York, and it works directly with the highest need kids, teaching them about food and nutrition and actively transforming the food served in the cafeteria,” says Cotlear. The burrito-monger’s early involvement included sponsoring the program at a school in the Upper West Side and providing hands on demonstrations, like a guacamole-making lesson. But in the 2012-2013 school year, Chipotle saw the opportunity to create a field trip program that would give kids an opportunity to leave their borough and understand the lessons of WITS on a deeper, more practical level.
Via the partnership, “each kid does three to four visits to the farm, and they’re able to see the change on the working farm and understand much more deeply what it means to live in a real food environment,” says Cotlear.
For WITS, the partnership adds another dimension to programs it’s implementing around the city. Nancy Easton, the co-founder of the organization, says WITS has expanded into a number of offerings, including Cooks for Kids, a program that places culinary school graduates or the equivalent in school cafeterias, where they write menus around scratch-cooked meals and salad bars and, four times a year, offer a seasonal cooking class. Eighty percent of WITS schools also have a garden, and, says Easton, Stone Barns functions as PS 69’s garden. “Any exposure that our city kids can get to where their food comes from, the end result is that they eat healthier food,” she says. “Something like this plays so closely into that.”
In addition, the kids get to “experience animals,” says Easton. “They don’t see that in a garden in New York. The breadth of the place and education programs around it are as exciting as seeing the vegetables. It’s the interaction of all those ecosystems.” The Stone Barns partnership has also led families at PS 69 to spearhead a CSA program, which helps generate more excitement around healthy food. “It really allowed us to provide a great opportunity,” says Easton. “And it’s all happening because Chipotle is funding it. The people who work there personify the company, spirit, generosity, sustainability, and what they’re trying to do for this country.”
Jennifer Rothman, the program director at Stone Barns, says the WITS partnership is similar to the other education experiences the center provides, which are designed to introduce students to “the principle of resilient agriculture and the seasonal diet. Students do a hands-on tasting and meet someone from the Stone Barns community, and they get to see what a production farm looks like and how the farm changes.”
PS 69 isn’t the only school that does seasonal visits, either — Rothman says a couple of others that come up three or four times a year, though even schools that visit once get something unique from the trips. “Surprisingly and sort of unfortunately, most of the groups haven’t had hands on experiences with a farm,” says Rothman. At Stone Barns, the kids partake in a sensory experience that might include gathering eggs or harvesting peas; older kids might participate in a cooking program, and high schoolers can become interns. And all groups get some time to interact with farmers.
But as for WITS, “choosing one school to work with in a deep way was wonderful,” says Rothman.
Cotlear says this partnership is part of Chipotle’s marketing goal to “be the carriers of Food With Integrity to our local communities. Programs like this are happening all around the country. Every market has a unique landscape in terms of what organizations they work with, and a lot of our markets partner with school gardens, because that’s something we’re really interested in supporting. This is an example of what Chipotle’s doing on a national level.”
You can get a taste of the Stone Barns programs at this year’s Harvest Fest, which hits the farm on Sunday, October 5, from 10 a.m. until 3 p.m. The center will do a variety of hands-on demonstrations suitable for all age groups, and you can partake in hayrides and farmers’ market shopping plus plenty of eating while enjoying some live music. Look for Chipotle’s seed-saving demo with tomatoes. Tickets are on sale now.