On Thanksgiving, Stepping Up to the Plate

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Students at Public School 56 Lewis H. Latimer in Brooklyn were thankful for more than an extra Thanksgiving meal with their friends at school this year. The elementary school students shared lunch and received a lesson in nutrition from the schools chancellor, Dennis M. Walcott, who visited the campus Tuesday afternoon for the school’s annual Harvest Feast.

“They get to have two Thanksgivings almost,” said Arlette Williams, 40, president of the P.S. 56 P.T.A. “They realize this is not just the school they go to, it’s a second home, and that everyone cares for them.”

Over a spread of ham, turkey and Thanksgiving trimmings, Mr. Walcott dined with the students and discussed healthy eating.

“It's fun because we can come together and we don’t get to see each other on Thanksgiving,” said Mahagany Young, 9, a fourth grader. “Everyone here is friends and family to us.”

Deborah Clark-Johnson, principal of the school of about 300 pre-K to fifth-grade students, which received an A on its latest school progress report, said the event was the fifth Harvest Feast, but the first attended by Mr. Walcott.

The food was prepared by students and faculty, and incorporated vegetables grown in the school’s courtyard. Ms. Clark-Johnson said this was an important opportunity for students, because some children don’t have a typical Thanksgiving meal.

“Every culture has a celebration that’s somewhat around food,” she said. “You can’t argue with good food in your mouth.”

The cafeteria was decorated with orange and brown streamers hanging from the windows, and festive characters like a stuffed scarecrow and a paper turkey. Red table cloths were draped over the usual long, rectangular tables, and students lined up single file to be served by members of their community.

“We use this as a way of coming together; they get to sit together and break bread,” Ms. Clark-Johnson said. “This is a way for us to be who we are and have a meal together.”

The cafeteria ignited with excitement when Mr. Walcott arrived and moved from table to table introducing himself. He asked the students what they were eating and what they thought was tasty from the spread.

After preparing himself a plastic foam plate of salad, corn and chicken, he sat with a table of fourth graders and discussed what they were thankful for this year. He scooped his meal with a spork and told the children that he wanted to help land planes on an aircraft carrier when he was their age.

He ended his visit by discussing smart dining choices with members of the school’s student nutrition committee.

“I believe in healthy eating, so you guys are an important committee,” Mr. Walcott said, as he told the students about his family history with diabetes, why he cut down on sweets and how he limits himself to only one slice of sweet potato pie.

Akaisha Williams, a fifth grader, shared her similar experiences trying to choose healthy options, even when dining at a fast food restaurant.

“Very rarely do I get French fries,” said Akaisha, 10, who also mentioned her family’s efforts to eat well.

“The kids are just so motivated about life and so knowledgeable about themselves, so it's not just about education; the school really takes a look at the importance of education in their overall life,” Mr. Walcott said. “I had a ball, it was a great experience and it’s a great reminder about why we should get out and make sure we know exactly what’s happening in our schools.”

As Mr. Walcott wrapped up his visit and said he had time for one last question, a boy shouted from the crowd around his table, “How do you feel about education?”

“It’s the most important thing in life,” Mr. Walcott said. “Education and family are the most important things.”