The Food Education Program at MFS
Here in Room 4, glass-encased beetles sit on the window ledge next to a paper wasp nest. A line of biological curiosities decorates the back wall: an elephant femur, the skulls of various animals, fish swimming circles around duckweed and snails. Chemical Test Rules are posted in purple marker: “Don’t eat it! Wear goggles. Listen. Wash your hands.” Fifth Grade and Lower School Science Teacher Rebekka Schultz stands in the front of the room under a display of favorite classroom words like displacement, sedimentary, and hypothesis. This is definitely a science classroom. And that’s why there are fluffy marshmallows on every table.
“What do we know about a marshmallow?” asks Ms. Schultz. “Do we think it would be a good snack to take with us on a hike?”
One student raises his hand and says marshmallows would need to contain both fats and starches in order to be the right snack. The other fifth graders nod and look down at the handouts in front of them. The class has been studying food chemistry, performing physical and chemical tests on foods to analyze nutrition content. In previous classes, they learned how to test for nutrients one at a time, but in this final challenge they’ll be conducting all four tests in one class period: starch, glucose, fats, and protein.
Each table makes their own predictions about which nutrients they think the marshmallows contain. They work together to review how to read the different nutrient test results: “What happens with glucose again?” “What color is iodine?” Students reference their food chemistry workbooks, developed by the Smithsonian Institution, for answers.
They begin their fat and protein tests first, because those results take longer to process. Some of the tables have conflicting results. Ms. Schultz moves around the room, photographing the different results on her iPad so they can review them as a class on the interactive whiteboard. With about fifteen minutes to go, she distributes a copy of the marshmallows’ nutrition label to each table. The room buzzes with questions and speculation. Ms. Schultz switches off the overhead lights.
“Eyes and ears, friends,” she says. “I’ve given you the nutrition label that lets you know which ingredients are in the marshmallows. That should help you fill in your post-lab results. When we all finish, I’ll show you the rest of the marshmallow food label, where it lists the amount of each nutrient.”
A little while later, Ms. Schultz directs the class’s attention to the screen at the front of the room.
“Alright, ladies and gentlemen. Up on the board you will see each tables’ results. So looking at the ingredient label now: if we were going on a hike, and I brought marshmallows, would you say ‘awesome, good choice,’ or ‘Ms. Schultz, you’ve let me down’?”
“‘Ms. Schultz, you’ve let me down!’” says Mikey. “Because we’d only have enough nutrients for a little hike.”
“But Mikey, I’m confused.” Ms. Schultz puts her hands on her hips. “Because they also contain starch, which gives us great, long-lasting energy.” She turns to another student. “Michael, what do you have to say about that?”
“Well, glucose is the first ingredient, the second sounds like sugar, and the third ingredient dextrose is also a sugar,” says Michael. “Starch isn’t listed until fourth.”
“So chances are, your body’s going to break down all of those sugars pretty fast,” says Ms. Schultz. “Based on our results, marshmallows wouldn’t be the worst choice for our hike, but we could probably choose something better.”
All the way down the hallway, in Room 22, Dr. Barbara Kreider is teaching Nutrition to Upper School students. If you asked her, she would tell you that the Food Education Program at MFS has been one of her greatest passions as head of the Science & Engineering Department.
“Our textbook publishers have noted that we may be the only high school in the country that uses a college textbook for Nutrition,” says Dr. Kreider, warmly. “We have two sections of it as a major course, and it’s truly a uniquely independent school offering. The Nutrition class amplifies the message that every senior gets in Health class — eat well to be well.”
The Nutrition course occupies a unique niche at MFS. Within the science curriculum, it meets the emerging need for deliberate pre-college education around being a consumer in a country with an obesity epidemic. Within the broader context of a balanced education, the school’s faculty have been cognizant of how instruction on food — at both the local and global levels — contextualizes the role of food in driving social systems.
“Lifelong learning is a goal of our Nutrition course. We want to create an educated citizenry prepared to make informed decisions around issues of food sustainability and food equity,” says Dr. Kreider. “Student interest in this class has grown over the past five years as public discourse around food issues has intensified.”
The Nutrition course includes weekly eco-friendly cooking and food planning. All students enrolled in the course compete in a local business competition, in which they design social media campaigns to convince target audiences to eat more healthfully. The students also provide produce to the entire school on “Free Fruit Fridays.”
In addition to offering Nutrition as an Upper School major course, MFS also offers Food Science as an Upper School minor course, Kitchen Science as a Middle School activity, and Food Chemistry as an academic course in fifth grade. The different age levels are able to interact with one another, particularly because the Nutrition course has a strong emphasis on learning through teaching. Upper School students design activities around vitamins and minerals that they then share with fifth grade Food Chemistry, and they also design nutrition-based competition events for the New Jersey Science Olympiad.
The Food Education Program was partially the result of Dr. Kreider’s work on a nationally distributed nutrition textbook, for which she worked as a development editor for two years. She realized how little Americans know about the food industry and sought to better educate her students. A course such as Food Science is intended to increase students’ knowledge of how prepared and processed foods are made, while also teaching them about the history and sociological impact of food. A lesson on cocoa puffs examines how the ingredients are formed into a cereal product, but it also introduces students to the history of cereal foods: for example, the first modern cereals were created by Seventh-day Adventists as a dietary solution for mental health patients.
In contrast to Nutrition, which focuses on healthfulness and whole foods, the Food Science minor focuses on the industry behind processed foods. Students gain insight into the food system by considering how a product such as ketchup is made, marketed, and then distributed nationally — essentially, how to understand the Ingredients list on a food label as opposed to the Nutrition Facts. The goal is to teach them how to navigate an ever-changing food system by learning the fundamentals of how food is commercially prepared.
“The study of food at MFS is an applied science,” says Dr. Kreider. “When kids understand that cocoa puffs are cornstarch, they can associate the cereal with their chemistry knowledge. We teach them the process of using evidence to decide what they should eat.”
A number of students who have taken Dr. Kreider’s Food Science course have gone on to study food science or nutrition at the college or graduate level. One such student, Kayla Fox ’08, majored in food science at UC Davis and is currently Assistant Research Scientist at Marrone Bio Innovations. She took Dr. Kreider’s Food Science elective twice.
“If they had offered nutrition while I was at MFS, I would have taken that as well,” says Kayla. “If it weren’t for Dr. Kreider, I would have never even known about food science. She told me I should consider majoring in it.”
Kayla’s degree led her to Marrone Bio, a company that produces biopesticides and bioherbicides. She is in charge of making field trial material for the products that are currently in development.
“What I like most is that I feel that I am working on products that will make a difference in the world. With the world’s growing population, there is a need for more sustainable food production, with higher yields. Biopesticides help improve yields, can be used in organic farming, and have less of an environmental footprint.”
Amanda Connell ’12 is currently pursuing a double major in Food Science and Environmental Science at Cornell University. Her studies focus on sustainable practices in the food industry, from small-scale farms to large-scale production lines. Upon graduation, she hopes to find employment in the growing field of food sustainability.
“I believe it would be extremely rewarding to be involved and to use my skill set to push the development of food sustainability. I would also eventually like to pursue an advanced degree either in food science or in environmental sustainability,” says Amanda, who had also never considered studying food science before taking courses with Dr. Kreider.
“After observing my interests in science and food, she was the one who suggested the combination of the two and introduced me to a subject she believed I would love. Barb encouraged me to help her run the Middle School Kitchen Science elective, and she pushed me to apply to the top schools for food science. She supported me every step of the way.”
In addition to the alumni highlighted on the following pages, many other individuals launched prestigious food-related careers at MFS: Sarah Adelman ’96 is an assistant professor at Mt. Holyoke College who specializes in the health and nutrition of developing countries; Kernika Gupta ’05 conducts research in gastroenterology and nutrition at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia; Julie Steinberg ’07 is a research assistant at the USDA; Maria Elene Jefferds ’89 is involved with malnutrition prevention at the Center for Disease Control’s micronutrient program; Rachel Fisher ’93 writes science-based young adult novels about global food shortage — the list goes on.
The school has also been fortunate enough to benefit from Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign. Chef Kathy Gold, who runs In the Kitchen Cooking School in Haddonfield, was invited to the White House for the 2010 launch of the Chefs Move to Schools Program; there, she and other prominent chefs were asked to adopt schools and participate in schools’ food education. Chef Gold adopted MFS, and she has visited the school cafeteria to offer tweaks to healthy recipes. She also hosted an MFS Intensive Learning group at her cooking school for five days. As part of Michelle Obama’s initiative, a significant donation of health-focused cooking equipment was added to the collection of cookware used in the Nutrition course.
Lower School teachers have also been exploring ways to expose the school’s youngest students to the science of food.
“Before coming to MFS, I worked with farm-to-table programs, teaching students about where food comes from,” says Lower School Science Teacher Rebekka Schultz. “Research has shown that the more students are exposed to healthy foods, either by close observations or growing them from seed, the more interested students are in eating them. Our Lower Schoolers are beginning to think beyond the classroom walls, understanding the role of food and the environment in their lives.”
Looking towards the future, the Science & Engineering Department is designing comprehensive nutrition education materials for the Lower School. For Dr. Kreider, this means keeping MFS on the cutting edge of education.
“A truly exceptional educational program is informed by current research and maximizes student engagement. Come to our classrooms, look and listen, and I think you will discover excellence.”