Olivia Parker is the Program Manager at Edible Schoolyard NYC‘s Public School 216 in Brooklyn. And she takes Know Your Farmer to a whole new level—Olivia’s school-aged kids are farming for themselves! Right here in New York.
For those unfamiliar with Edible Schoolyard, please tell us about the organization, and some of its history.
Edible Schoolyard NYC partners with public schools to transform the hearts, minds, and eating habits of young New Yorkers through garden and kitchen classes integrated into the school day. Our vision is that all children are educated and empowered to make healthy food choices for themselves, their communities, and their environment, actively achieving a just and sustainable food system for all.
What do you grow in the garden? How is it used at the school?
We grow over 80 varieties of fruits and vegetables, annuals and perennials, in our half-acre garden. We have an herb garden, an orchard, a medicinal garden, and several vegetable beds. We grow some pretty interesting crops, including artichokes and edible weeds like lamb’s quarters and burdock. The majority of our produce goes to garden and kitchen classes. We teach all 700 students at P.S. 216 twice a month in garden, and once a month in kitchen. Extra produce is sold at our farm stand and we do our best to also feature it in the cafeteria.
If you could get the general population to change one aspect of their eating habits, what would it be?
These days, we aren’t as connected to one another as we used to be, especially now that technology has taken over and consumed our lives. I think if everyone shared meals with other people, we’d be taking steps in the right direction. It seems like a reasonable start.
How have you seen ESY impact the Gravesend community?
Where do I begin? Our students are so knowledgeable! They take ownership of the garden and the kitchen classroom. Students who may struggle in their regular classroom settings come to garden and kitchen classes and demonstrate a level of focus and attention that I sometimes don’t even see in adults! Grandparents pick up their grandkids after school and come hang out in the garden. They tell us how the garden and our chickens remind them of their childhoods and the countries they emigrated from. They feel more connected to their grandchildren who have a garden that they can call their own. That multigenerational connection is heartwarming.
Our farm stand and events have also influenced the community. Students and their families visit us every week to buy produce from the garden. Local restaurants purchase our produce too. We host free community events four times a year for our students, their families, and everyone else in the community (including children who attend other schools).
What’s one of your first (and most memorable) interactions with food?
I was the kid who brought leftover wiener schnitzel and a lemon wedge for lunch in elementary school. I had a pretty good idea early on that I was eating different foods than my peers. It was embarrassing at the time, but now I’m proud of it!
How did you come to work at ESY?
I grew up in Marin County, California—very close to the Edible Schoolyard Project in Berkeley. I have known about the program for quite some time, and, like many others, was inspired by Alice Waters. I have always loved working with children and have enjoyed eating and cooking from a young age. It seemed natural to bring the two together. When I was in high school, people asked me what my dream job was, and my response was, “I’d like to work for Edible Schoolyard.”
Food issues have barely made it into the race for President. If you could ask the future President to consider a food issue that needs to be addressed, what would it be?
It’s hard to only pick one! I’ll keep it very broad… Big business has ruled the food industry for years. The government should take responsibility for the nation’s declining health by disallowing lobbying of government officials and marketing to our children.
How do you define good food?
Good food is clean, nourishing, and prepared with love.
What is the most rewarding aspect of your job?
Interacting with our students and their families is the most rewarding part of the job. Knowing that our students are asking for more fruits and vegetables at home, showing an interest in gardening and cooking, making our recipes at home, and are more engaged in school because of it, is amazing.
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Watching seeds turn into food is a powerful experience. What’s it like to work with children and see how inspired they become?
Working with our students is incredibly gratifying. We do this work every day, yet we forget how amazing it is that we can plant some seeds, take care of them, and watch as they produce delicious fruits and vegetables. Our students remind us just how unbelievable that is. Their inspiration inspires us! That’s the beauty of the job—we get that kind of gratification every day.
We just completed our second #NoFoodWaste campaign in June. What are some #NoFoodWaste practices that you incorporate into your business?
We have a big composting operation and teach our students the importance of recycling our food scraps. Our students know that our fruits and vegetables are strong and delicious because they are rooted in good soil. That soil is healthy because it is made up of the nutrients that come from our food scraps. We also taught our students how to make stock from our food scraps when we made potato leek soup this winter!
What’s always in your fridge? How do you use it?
I always have eggs and jalapeños in my fridge. No matter the season, I always need my jalapeños. I am obsessed with spicy foods and love the flavor of them. They go with everything! Eggs are also very versatile. I love them soft boiled, hard boiled, and fried. I put them on top of vegetables, salads, and bread.
What was your biggest #foodfail?
I am so bad at baking. My mom and I have tried to make pies on several occasions. The filling ALWAYS separates from the crust. What’s the deal?!
Who is one famous person, dead or alive, that you want to share a meal with? And where?
Julia Child, without a doubt. I need to perfect my impersonation of her. It would only be appropriate to dine together in the south of France.
What’s your go-to breakfast?
Lately, oatmeal with sesame seeds, nori, and soy sauce. I love simple and savory breakfasts!
What inspires you to teach about food and gardening?
In school, we learn how to read, write, and do math, and we use those skills every day. Another important element of our lives that we don’t learn in school is how our food grows and how to prepare it. We do not know where our food comes from or how it grows, and do not have the tools to make good, healthy choices when it comes to our diet. I aspire to change that.
If you weren’t doing what you’re doing, what would you be doing?
I’d probably be a therapist. I enjoy working with people!
Your good food wish?
I wish that every child had access to clean and nutritious food.