It’s a sunny, April afternoon at Richmond College Prep School. Around 20 fourth graders fidget at their tables near their outdoor garden. Each table is covered with placemats, bowls, cutting boards, and a recipe.
In front of the tables is a red and yellow movable kitchen: the Charlie Cart.
“Hands-on food education or cooking classes in school and after-school programs is not new,” says Carolyn Federman, who created and named the mobile kitchen. “What’s new with the Charlie Cart is having all your tools in one place that can wheel from location to location.”
Federman used to work for Edible Schoolyards Project, helping schools build garden programs and teaching kids to cook.
“So the impetus behind evolving this program was to expand food education – hands-on food education – in schools everywhere,” she says. “And the reason that it’s so important is because kids today are really separated from fresh food, how to cook food.”
Origins of the mobile food cart
“The Charlie Cart is the great, great grandchild of the chuck wagon,” says Federman.
Charlie Cart designer Brian Dougherty agrees.
“Yeah, we were talking about different models for mobile kitchens and then we found an earlier precedent of the chuck wagon from the early pioneer days,” he says. “We thought that was fantastic in the sense that it’s highly functional, and it’s all about discovering new places.”
With help from a Kickstarter campaign last fall that raised over $42,000, the duo started a pilot program at Richmond College Prep, the Pittsburg Unified School District, and the Ventura Unified School District.
At Richmond, fourth graders are making spring salad. With help from their teachers, they slice carrots, chop asparagus and mix everything in a bowl with lettuce and cheese. They top it all with garlic vinaigrette.
The kids have mixed reviews. One says it’s “kind of good.” Another says salt and pepper makes it “really good.” One doesn’t like it, except for the peas, cheese, and carrots.
Overall, garden teacher Sarah Grierson Dale is encouraged.
“We’ve made salad before, but the Charlie Cart is just giving us a much formal way to present this,” she says. “It’s beautiful, and it has all of the supplies, so it’s pretty seamless – and I love that we get to have the cooking classes outside.”
The impact on schoolchildren
Nova Blazej is a parent at Richmond College Prep.
“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,” she says.
Her daughter, Kaitlyn, adds, “The Charlie Cart also helps people in my class learn how to cook, and the teachers who teach just really help kids learn how to make salad and other stuff.”
So far, the Charlie Cart team creates and provides the recipes for the schools. Since the food is not included, schools that buy the cart have to get food in different ways.
Founder Carolyn Federman says, “In California we have a program called ‘Harvest of the Month’ where the USDA will provide extra produce through the school cafeteria if the nutrition lessons are highlighting some of the food that is served in the cafeteria.”
Some elementary schools also get food money from the PTA or the school budget.
Designer Charlie Dougherty says they hope to expand Charlie Cart nationwide.
“So it’s really applicable for anywhere that young people gather to learn about food and cooking,” he says, “and that might be after-school programs, it might be community gardens, in addition to classroom teaching.”
Richmond College Prep hopes to use the cart next year and incorporate food grown in the school’s own garden. It would help teach healthy living, eating, and cooking to parents and families in the Richmond community.