The Charlie Cart, a newly designed mobile kitchen, brings food education into the classroom

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It was a sunny Wednesday afternoon in April at the Richmond College Prep School, and the fourth grade students were divided among three tables near the outdoor garden. In front of the tables was a mobile kitchen called the Charlie Cart that can roll from classroom to classroom.

Each table had placemats, bowls, cutting boards and the cooking lesson for the day. The students were making spring salad with garlic vinaigrette. As for the Charlie Cart, imagine a kitchen, shrunk down into a cart, with a sink, a conventional oven, an induction cooktop and a cabinet full of cutlery. It was created by Carolyn Federman and designed by Brian Dougherty, founder of Celery Design. They created the Charlie Cart to expand hands-on food education in schools everywhere, Federman said in an interview last month. “We think it’s really important that we educate them about the connections between food, health and the environment,” she said.

“The way it works is you roll it into a classroom and everything is right there,” Dougherty said during the interview. “So all the components, all the pieces, the tools that a teacher needs are right in one centralized location. …Within an hour, a classroom can become a kitchen.”

Federman started off in the food business working for Alice Waters, running the Chez Panisse Foundation, which is now the Edible Schoolyards Project, developing programming for garden and kitchen education in schools. She said it was hard to implement the kind of work they were doing at the foundation with schools that didn’t have the right resources, like fully-operational kitchen classrooms. In order to close the gap and expand Waters’ work, she came up with the Charlie Cart, which would be mobile. “The idea [is] bringing the kitchen to the kids instead of bringing the kids to the kitchen,” Dougherty said.

To help design the cart, they met with chefs, teachers and food education advocates. The design of the cart dates back to the pioneer days. “The Charlie Cart is the great, great-grandchild of the chuck wagon,” which was used to carry food and cooking equipment on U.S. and Canadian prairies, Federman said. After brainstorming different mobile kitchen designs, Dougherty said they thought the chuck wagon was fantastic because of its functionality and how it’s related to the concept of discovering new places. “We thought that was an interesting metaphor for young people discovering new tastes, flavors and skills,” he said.

The duo created a Kickstarter campaign last fall with an initial goal of $40,000. Instead, they raised $42,214. The money went towards building three carts for their pilot program sites. Richmond College Prep Schools is one of three pilot sites, along with schools in the Pittsburg and the Ventura school districts, in Northern and Southern California, respectively. Federman wrote in an email that the two other pilot programs are partnerships at the district level, meaning that, eventually, other schools or programs in the district may have access to the cart and tools. “They were districts that are already engaged in nutrition education programming,” she wrote. “They were well set-up to use the cart and expand the program with the cart.”

In Ventura, the cart is at Lincoln Elementary School, but the district has plans to use it for adult and community classes in the evening, said Federman. In Pittsburg, the cart is at Stoneman Elementary, but has already been used at a district-wide farmers market and cooking demonstration. But at the Richmond location, the school will continue to use the cart as their own for cooking classes and other programs.

So far, the Charlie Cart team creates and provides the lesson plans for the schools. Some of the recipes in the lesson plans include spiced carrot salad, tacos made using handmade tortillas, and a lightly pickled cabbage salad.

Schools that purchase a Charlie Cart can obtain food for lesson plans in various ways: In California, there’s a program called Harvest of the Month through which the U.S. Department of Agriculture will provide extra produce through the school’s cafeteria if the lesson calls for ingredients available that day, Federman said. Other nutrition education programs obtain money for ingredients from their budget and the Parent Teacher Association. “It really depends how they’re running the program through their agency,” she said.

In elementary schools, the cart will mainly serve for the teachers to bring the equipment out to the students, and the student tables will become their workstations. Federman said they already have some high schools who want to use the cart for cooking competitions, where the students will actually be working on the cart.

As the fourth graders waited restlessly to start their cooking lesson, gardening teacher Sarah Grierson Dale, known as “Ms. Sarah,” passed out the salad ingredients along with the other teachers. “We’ve made salad before, but the Charlie Cart just gives us a formal way to present this,” Grierson Dale said. “It’s beautiful and it has all of the supplies, so it’s pretty seamless. I love that we get to have the cooking classes outside. It just brings it all together.” While Grierson Dale’s gardening class integrates cooking in some of her classes throughout the year, the Charlie Cart cooking class is new. In the future, Grierson Dale plans to incorporate produce from the school’s garden full of organic fruits and vegetables into the Charlie Cart recipes.

Kenya Williams, business manager at Richmond College Prep, is also working with Grierson Dale to adapting the cart at the school. Williams wrote in an email that as a part of the pilot program, the cooking classes are being taught to two of the fourth grade classes. She said she’s teaching the same lessons to six graders in the after-school program.

Federman and Dougherty also attended the cooking class, helping students wash their hands with the closed-circuit sink on the Charlie Cart that contained fresh water and greywater, which is recycled from showers, baths and wash-hand basins, and is almost as clean as drinkable water.

After the fourth graders received their ingredients, they began following the spring salad recipe they found on their table. With help from their teachers, they sliced carrots into thin strands, chopped asparagus and mixed everything in a bowl with lettuce and cheese. When it came time to make the garlic vinaigrette, their teacher helped by pouring the dressing into the bowl as the students added pepper and garlic.

While many of the fourth graders were hesitant to try the salad because of the salty vinaigrette dressing, they still enjoyed it. “The salad was kind of good,” said fourth grader Jonathan Zuniga.

“I didn’t like it,” Alex Ayala said. “But the things that I liked is peas and the cheese and the carrots. I don’t like the rest.”

Fourth grader Kennedy Caldwell said she liked the salad as she took a bite. But she didn’t advise pouring the leftover vinaigrette into the salad because it tasted too salty. Still, she was pretty excited about the cart. “I think the Charlie Cart is pretty cool, because next we are going to make some tacos,” said Kennedy.

Along with the three pilot program schools, the cart was also introduced to students at Cragmont Elementary School in Berkeley. Nova Blazej, the mother of 9-year-old student Kaitlin Moore, said it was a great surprise when Kaitlin came home from school wanting to make salad because “that’s something she’s never ever said she wanted to do before.”

“I think Charlie Cart is just another example of how the schools are investing in starting off children with healthy habits and excitement about fresh food and about sustainability in general,” Blazej said.

“The Charlie Cart also helps people in my class learn how to cook. The teachers who teach just really help kids learn how to make salad and other stuff,” her daughter added.

After the pilot program has accomplished its purpose, Dougherty said they will began taking orders for carts in May. “Different schools are going to use the Charlie Cart in different ways,” Dougherty said. Some will use it predominately in the classroom, while others will use it for after-school programs.

At Richmond College Prep, Williams said the school will use the cart next year as a tool in a course that teaches healthy living and cooking skills to parents and families in the Richmond Community.

“Hands-on food education or cooking classes in school and after-school programs is not new,” Federman said. “What’s new with the Charlie Cart is having all your tools in one place that can wheel from location to location.”

For more information on the Charlie Cart project, click here.

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