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This Could Be the Foodiest School in New York

Thursday, June 28, 2012 - 03:01 PM

It’s no secret that inside New York City schools mini food revolutions are under way. There are rooftop gardens, fancy salad bars, junk food exorcisms and celebrity chefs who drop in to whip up mouthwatering pestos and tangy fruit shakes.

But Public School 150, a stone's throw away from Nobu, Landmarc and the venerable Odeon in Lower Manhattan, inhabits a culinary world of its own.

During parent-teacher conferences, staff members are rewarded with homemade stratas, spiced bean chilies and exotic salads, courtesy of the school’s principal, Maggie Siena, who has a subscription to Cook’s Illustrated and a background in restaurant management.

For big PTA meetings, dinner is a given. Japanese parents arrive with slabs of raw fish stuffed into giant sushi rolls. South American parents contribute marinated steak quesadillas. And in recent years, Suikerbrood, a sugar loaf spattered with ginger and cinnamon, has become a distinct favorite, thanks to a group of families from Holland.

At a ceremony to cap off a first-grade unit on grain, the star dish was nine-layer phyllo pie painstakingly made by a Croatian parent. The pie includes poppy seeds, walnuts and dark raisins soaked overnight.

“Food permeates just about everything we do here,” said Christina Santiago, who serves as both the school’s math coach and the go-to person for anything that has a food tie-in.

And at P.S. 150 (also known as the Tribeca Learning Center) a small, tight-knit school that towers over the cobblestone streets of TriBeCa, there are many.

While other kindergartners leisurely tour their neighborhoods as part of the city-approved social studies curriculum, the ones at P.S. 150 inspect restaurant meat lockers, examine commercial-grade flour mixers, eyeball huge chunks of top-quality chocolate in the back rooms of bake shops, and interview chefs, busboys and frommeliers, tasting cheeses, pastries, salads and breads along the way.

Students draw intricate plans of restaurant interiors — the cook line and the prep area — and are expected to know what a sous-chef does and what it means when an item is “86” (out of stock).

It is all part of a six-month restaurant unit Ms. Santiago designed to teach students about community, cooperation and the way individual cuisines reflect the cultures they came from.

In recent years, third graders studying American Indians have devoured a Three Sister Stew, a soup of corn, beans and squash, to better understand what indigenous people ate and how they farmed.

And in fifth grade, a science teacher, Michael Iwachiw, has designed several lessons around the ills of fast food — emulsifying a McDonald’s meal and plopping it into a two-liter bottle to show the ratio of fats to other liquids. “It’s the yuck factor,” he said.

In a separate lesson on empty calories, Mr. Iwachiw presents sugared soft drinks — often from McDonald’s — in all the available sizes. Then students fill clear cups with the amount of raw, white sugar found in each soda to see firsthand how much sugar these types of beverages contain. (The lesson long proceeded Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg's campaign against large, sugary drinks.)

Many public schools incorporate food — its production, nutritional value and place in the larger culture — into their curriculum. And at certain private schools, like the Calhoun School on the Upper West Side, lunchtime can include braised meats and Korean meatloaf.

But at P.S. 150, a school of fewer than 200 students, an appreciation for food is an integral part of student life, interwoven into the culture of the school and shared by the families who send their children there, many of whom have sophisticated palettes themselves.

Indeed, when parents surf the popular parenting site Urban Baby looking for tips on schools with good food, they are likely to find P.S. 150 at the top of the list. “P.S. 150 (The Tribeca Learning Center) has an outstanding nutrition program,” read one recent post.

And when school advisers are asked about P.S. 150, they make immediate mention of its culinary prowess. “Food — what it means and where it comes from — is central there,” said Emily Glickman, an education consultant.

Starting in prekindergarten, P.S. 150 students, who all eat family-style in their classrooms because the school has no cafeteria, practice their table manners and recite a mealtime verse, thanking their parents and the school chef, Annie Singh, for preparing their lunch. (Not surprisingly, Ms. Singh cooks with fresh herbs from her Queens garden and is reputed for her stellar skills at doctoring bland Department of Education recipes with her famed spice collection. She routinely wins best chef of the year from the District 2 central office.)

In kindergarten, a fish unit, which is part of the science curriculum, doesn’t end until students have learned how to fillet a fish, a skill deemed important by the principal. And third- and fourth-grade math lessons in measurement often include zucchini bread or homemade soups, whose recipes students double or triple as a way of understanding mass and volume firsthand.

First graders spend months studying how ancient civilizations planted, harvested and ground grain. And when a few years ago a fifth-grade class studied Colonial America, they spent weeks researching early American culinary habits, focusing on food preparation, table manners and how the seasons affected the 17th-century American diet.

Teachers there say the emphasis on food is a hands-on way to explore reading, writing and arithmetic, not to mention social studies and science. “It’s about framing a discussion,” Mr. Iwachiw said. “It keeps them very interested, and interested in the material.”

But the teachers say it also helps them impart more esoteric skills, valued by the school’s relatively well-off parents: an understanding of food origins, respect for the natural world and good eating habits. Students also learn how to cook.

Ms. Santiago says incorporating food into the classroom is particularly helpful for community-building and math. “It makes it more realistic and less abstract,” she said.

Ms. Siena, 48, the principal, is as likely to be chatting with parents about the fourth grade’s Greek mythology unit as she is about the salty caramel ice cream she whips up in her Whynter Sno gelato maker. So weaving a curriculum around cuisine comes naturally.

“I look at food as an art form,” she said. “And we’re big on the arts here. Understanding how people relate to food is incredibly engaging.”

That students should possess a certain level of sophistication about food is an increasingly popular meme, finding expression in the missions of countless nonprofit organizations, books like "French Kids Eat Everything" by Karen Le Billon, and the work of Michelle Obama, who has taken on the child obesity epidemic with gusto. (A third of all American children are overweight, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.)

But parents at other schools say what happens at P.S. 150 is hard to replicate.

“Sadly, everything they do there is quite unique,” said Michelle Luhan-Nordberg, a registered dietitian and a parent of a fourth grader and a sixth grader. “At a big school, there is only so much you can do.”

Ms. Luhan-Nordberg has worked hard to improve the food at her children's school, New Explorations Into Science, Technology and Math High School, known as NEST+m. But she says Department of Education bureaucracy and the school’s size have made it particularly challenging to institute long-lasting changes.

Still, it’s not just P.S. 150’s size that enables it to focus on food. It is a top-rated school — close to 90 percent of the students perform at or above grade-level — that follows a content-driven curriculum. That means every year students spend months studying two different topics in depth, weaving those topics into core subjects like reading and writing.

This makes it feasible, and even helpful, to do small units that tie in food.

Of course, the school’s location helps. For the school’s biggest fund-raiser — the Taste of TriBeCa, which it hosts every year with another local school — restaurants donate hundreds of dishes to raise money for programs, some of which relate to culinary arts.

Earlier this school year, for a Taste of TriBeCa kickoff event at Roc, a modish-looking Italian restaurant across the street from the school, a fifth grader, James Lynch, nonchalantly polished off a plate of beef cubes, shiitake mushrooms and liver.

Plopping a salty morsel of liver into his mouth, James, a tousled-haired 11-year-old, declared: “Mmm ... it’s like meatloaf and duck combined!”

A few minutes later, Ms. Siena smiled wryly. “We really are the premier foodie school, aren’t we?”

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