Classroom Cooks Welcome the Charlie Cart
BY SARAH HENRY ◊ PHOTOGRAPHY BY MARIANNA NOBRE
A streamlined kitchen on wheels is set to roll out soon in California schools.
The Charlie Cart is a mobile, modern, playful design solution to a serious, longtime problem of underfunded or limited cooking instruction in schools.
Carolyn Federman, who cooked up the idea for the Charlie Cart, has worked with the Edible Schoolyard Project for 15 years. She knows firsthand what it’s like to help create a school garden and cooking program. And she’s had the good fortune of working in a well-funded and well-resourced system.
But she’s also taught cooking as a volunteer in her children’s public elementary school in Berkeley and knows that all too often, cooking teachers are working with a lot less equipment and infrastructure than the Edible Schoolyard has. If a school even offers a cooking class, it’s typically a makeshift affair featuring cobbled together mobile hot plates and plastic bins full of kitchen tools.
Federman wanted to build something better. So she teamed up with Brian Dougherty of Berkeley’s Celery Design to develop a prototype portable kitchen. Called the Charlie Cart, it’s inspired in part by the chuck wagons of the American pioneers. A key goal: bringing culinary skills on the go to the next generation of home cooks. “Kids get really excited when they see the cart come rolling into the classroom,” says Federman. “Every child should have access to this kind of edible education.”
It’s quite the compact culinary classroom. The sturdy, cheery transportable kitchen features an induction cooktop and small oven. It also has a rinsing station with a hand-pump faucet and a drought-friendly greywater recovery system, and includes other kitchen essentials such as mixing bowls, cutting boards, and knives for 30 students. In beta development for the past two years, the carts debuted late in 2014 in three pilot programs, including a single site pilot at Richmond College Prep, a K-12 charter school, and at public schools in Pittsburg and Ventura.
The prototype cost around $5,000 to produce. Subsequent carts will run around $6–8K for school purchase, including curriculum and training. That cost may drop once the project scales and outside funding partnerships are in place.
Federman—whose partners include Edible Schoolyard Project, Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, Community Alliance with Family Farmers, Breville, Oxo, and Williams-Sonoma—launched a Kickstarter campaign that exceeded its goal of raising $40,000 in November for the pilot carts.
The hands-on cooking cart is designed to move easily between classrooms and can work inside and outside in a school garden or on the playground. As part of the package, Federman is developing lesson plans—aligned with Common Core standards—and online video training.
Advisory board members and Charlie Cart champions include Alice Waters, Michael Pollan, and Harold McGee. “We’ve got to educate the next generation about the connections between food, health, and the environment if we hope to solve the major challenges of our times,” notes Pollan in the project’s Kickstarter campaign. “The Charlie Cart is the right idea at the right time.” Adds McGee: “The Charlie Cart Project will help make science more real, interesting, and memorable than most standard curricula do—and just as importantly, it will encourage students to think about what they eat.”
Clearly there’s a need, with unprecedented levels of childhood obesity and diabetes. Many children simply aren’t familiar with fresh, whole foods. “Every year I do a lesson on a winter salad and every year there’s a child in the class who has never eaten lettuce before, which seems almost unbelievable in Berkeley, I know,” says Federman, former executive director of the Chez Panisse Foundation and founding director of UC’s Berkeley Food Institute. Dougherty sees design as a tool for sustainability and social change. “What intrigued me at first was the scale of Carolyn’s dream—to get a whole generation of kids direct experience with healthy food,” he says.
The carts could fill a void: Many schools don’t have funding for cooking curriculum. Even Berkeley Unified School District’s lauded cooking and gardening program has seen severe cutbacks in recent years. Educators are hungry for innovation in this area. And many children are simply hungry. “All students should have the opportunity to learn about food,” says Federman. “Learning to cook is a fundamental life skill. And the cart is such a fun and inspiring way to engage children in the process.”