NEWARK, NJ - At Philip’s Academy Charter School, lunchtime is not just a school period.

Instead, the planting, growing, cooking and consumption of food — including setting the table and cleaning up afterward — is built in as part of its core curriculum. A math class could incorporate measurements for a recipe while a writing class could assign an essay about why certain foods serve better purposes than others. 

The charter school’s EcoSpaces Education Program was honored Monday as New Jersey’s best Farm to School program in 2018 by the state Department of Agriculture.

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EcoSpaces, the school’s version of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm to School program, builds partnerships between farmers and schools to encourage the use of local produce in school meals.

For some children at this Newark academy that serves more than 500 students from pre-K to 8th grade, those meals may be the only one a child gets in a given day, EcoSpaces Founding Director Frank Mentesana said.

“Here is a constant,” Mentesana said as he gave a tour of the school’s dining room, where round tables seating eight at a time are numbered — designating a task to each student at family-style lunch times.

Responsibilities include setting silverware, serving the food made by a staff of professional cooks and cleaning up afterward.

The  school also has a test kitchen used by students to cook the produce they grow and tend to themselves. The students plant, water and care for garden beds of carrots, spinach and radishes as well as a host of other fruits and vegetables that aims to encourage healthy eating.

Mentesana and other school officials were awarded by NJDA Division of Food and Nutrition Director Rose Tricario on the school’s rooftop garden, where they were lauded for developing a Farm to School program that proved to be a model for schools across the country.

The school had done an “exemplary job” in its comprehensive execution of the program, Tricario said.

Mentesana, who helped develop the schools decade-old program as a food entrepreneur, said the program incorporates a “power of the table” approach by serving meals family-style and giving each of the school’s more than 500 students the same meal. 

Giving each student the responsibility of not just having a good meal but making sure their fellow classmates also benefit results in better productivity across the board.

“They all have a [true] responsibility that engages them,” Mentesana said.