June 10, 2013

Baltimore Montessori Students Get Down to Business

Christine Grillo

Christine Grillo

Contributing Writer

Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future

At Baltimore Montessori Public Charter School, the lunchboxes tell the tale. Doritos are on the decline. Skittles are on the outs. And ditto for the instant soup formerly known as Cup O’ Noodles.

Over the course of the 2012–2013 school year, teacher Christina Soares Heffner has integrated lessons about the food system into her 7th and 8th adolescent community, and her students have taken these lessons to heart—or perhaps to their stomachs.

In addition to these lessons, Ms. Soares Heffner led an immersion week studying how foods are grown, processed, packaged, shipped, and how animals are raised for food. The class also studied consumption and pollution related to food systems. Some of the lessons were derived from the Center for Livable Future’s Teaching the Food System, and were complemented by an ambitious project supported by the Teaching the Food System Grants for Educators program.

“We really try to give information without judging,” said Ms. Soares Heffner. But the students formed pretty strong opinions about what they eat and how it gets to their plates. For most of them, the eye-openers came in lessons about industrial farms and about the nutritional value of common foods.

“What I learned about some of the foods I like to eat, like Pringles, kind of scared me,” said eighth-grader Suni.

Seventh-grader Nasim reacted to what he learned about the treatment of animals raised for food production: “I was sad to see how the chickens were raised, so crowded and in the dark.” And Russell, who’s been a vegetarian most of his life, said that after learning about animal food production, he was really glad he didn’t eat them.

For their food system project, the students made pesto and hummus that they packaged and sold at the carpool lane, using entirely organic ingredients. Some of the ingredients, like kale and strawberries, were grown in the school garden. (Photo essay)

Because the ingredients were of such high quality (and therefore expensive), the students didn’t turn much of a profit. For the next version of this venture, they’ll look into lower-cost bulk ingredients. “We’re looking for a way to buy bulk pine nuts,” said Ms. Soares Heffner.

The students also made smoothies—again, entirely organic—with an unusual blender. Instead of plugging this blender into an electrical outlet, they powered it with a stationary bicycle. (Photo essay)

The students seem to be ending the year with a new lens on food. Cameron, a seventh-grader, said that she was glad to learn that even though some fast foods are unhealthy, like French fries, there are ways to make them yourself that are much better for you. “Oh yeah,” said seventh-grader Mariama, “we learned all about the calories in fast food.”

One of the most interesting experiments the students did was the “Skittles meditation.” In this exercise, each student put one Skittle on his or her tongue and left it there without chewing for two minutes. “You could really taste the chemicals,” said eighth-grader Simone. Nasim said, “I used to love Skittles, but now I only kinda like them if I eat them fast. When I slow down eating them, they taste a little like poison.”

A happy moment for Ms. Soares Heffner came when she spotted one of her students, who used to bring “family-sized bags of Doritos” to lunch, walking down the hall eating raw Brussels sprouts after they tried them in a stir-fry recipe.

Will the class sell pesto and hummus next year? Possibly. They’ll have to make a lot more white bean and sage hummus, though—that was a surprise best-seller. Another shock was the banana-cinnamon-garlic hummus. “It was really good,” said the students. They seemed pleasantly surprised.

Photos: Michael Milli, 2013.


  1. Christine Grillo

    Posted by Christine Grillo

    Thanks, Janice. At the very least, a “Skittles meditation” seems like it should be easy enough to work in.

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