At the MUSE School in California, all school meals are plant-based and partly sourced from the school's own gardens.
When model and actor Suzy Amis Cameron founded private Pre-K through 9th grade MUSE School in Calabasas, CA with her sister Rebecca in 2006, they already knew that one of their major components of the program would be a focus on sustainability. Both knew they wanted to emphasize the need for environmental stewardship to children. They’ve accomplished this in a variety of ways, ranging from the use of renewable energy to the presence of a school greenhouse, but now they’ve taken it a step further, moving to an entirely plant-based school lunch format by the 2015-16 school year.
Seed to Table
One of the driving forces behind the school’s environmental stewardship is Paul Hudak, educator and gardener, whose passion for teaching children about the joys of gardening is palpable when one speaks with him. Currently, he and his student gardeners plant and manage fifty 4-by-10-foot raised beds on the campus, with plans to build 50 more in the immediate future, through their Seed to Table program.
“We’re a small farm at this point,” Hudak says proudly. “Every student works in the gardens at least twice a week, learning about every aspect of health and food, sustainability, and even the business aspects that apply.”
He adds, “We grow as much as we can for our own menu, at least 25 percent now, more than 150 different herbs, vegetables, and flowers, all organically. We hope to be at 50 to 60 percent by the end of the year.”
Kids learn about everything from seeds to compost, getting lessons in biology as well.
“Our meals have always been healthy,” says Rebecca Amis. “We have had turkey, chicken, organic cheese, but we’re phasing that out. We’re serious about reducing our carbon footprint. Here in California, the dairy and meat industry is a big part of that. This makes five meals a week the kids are getting that will be wholly plant based, plus a few snacks, like hummus and crackers or granola with rice milk. And science confirms that eating a third of your daily food intake based in plants is a good idea.”
Certainly it reflects the positive philosophical views of prominent, thoughtful minds such as Michael Pollan and Alice Waters.
Amis waxes poetic, as does Hudak, about the way interacting with the gardens likewise excites kids about not only learning and growing, but eating the foods.
“At the beginning of the meal, we have a beautiful salad bar, with fresh lettuces, sunflower seeds, homemade dressings – you see kids load up plates, and go sit outside to eat,” she says. “It’s gorgeous.”
So how do you introduce a food concept some might consider “radical?”
“We have a group of parents, a ‘food committee’ – that takes the time to talk about how we make positive changes with everyone involved. It keeps it from being just a ‘top down’ decision,” Amis says.
The impact is evident. Amis expresses joy that kids take concepts like composting to heart and bring them home to share. Hudak is likewise convinced that the excitement the kids feel in working the earth and gardening contributes to their fondness for eating the things they grow themselves.
He cites third-grader Emma, who designed her own curriculum with him because growing flowers is her thing. Together they ordered a plethora of seeds and filled two beds, which allowed her to create bouquets and floral arrangements artistically and also to learn science-focused lessons about attracting beneficial insects.
“It’s a diverse, bio-intensive project because she comes to understand how everything supports each other as the ladybugs eat the aphids, so they don’t attack other plants; it’s comprehensive,” Hudak says.
“This is important for both physical and mental health,” Hudak says. “The students are engaged, and likewise they’re way more apt to try the food they’ve raised, and a healthy diet evolves from that. And it is so easy to do something like this. We’re creating a model here that can be easily replicated.”
Every student works in the gardens at least twice a week, learning about every aspect of health and food, sustainability, and even the business aspects that apply.