First Lady Michelle Obama visited Philip’s Academy Charter School in Newark on April 7th as part of her ‘Let’s Move’ campaign, marking the second time in a year a member of the First Family has visited the growing city of Newark.
Obama’s American Garden Tour led her to Philip’s, a rather unique K-8 school that has their students plant their own foods as a learning process for how to create an environmentally sustainable and healthy lifestyle. Students also treated their distinguished guest to a school-made lunch of fresh smoothies and quinoa bars.
“We are going to have a meal experience,” said Obama as she sat down for the meal.
The First Lady’s tour featured a stop at Philip’s rooftop garden, where she helped plant seeds for food that would eventually end up in the school’s lunchroom.
In that very lunchroom was one of Philip’s most prized possessions: their collection of AeroFarms that allow students to grow food indoors as well. Kailani Day, a seventh grader at Philip’s, was one of two students lucky enough to showcase to the First Lady the school’s unique indoor labs.
“That was really exciting,” said Day. “At first I was nervous because I didn’t know what to expect, but once she got in the room and I saw her warming and friendly face, I just got all the nerves out of me.”
Obama’s strong interest in the well-being of America’s youth throughout her time in The White House has made her a very approachable and honest figure to the public. However, the usual inherent trepidation surrounding the meeting of such a universally renowned person appeared almost nonexistent in Philip’s students.
“When you talk to Mrs. Obama, it’s like she brings out your personality, just tears it right out of you,” said Robbie Riviere, an eighth grade student and five year veteran of Philip’s. “She brings out a smile on your face just by talking to you, just saying hello.”
But even with all the positivity around Philip’s, some question whether or not the knowledge students are gathering can actually be put into practice in a so called urban ‘food desert’ such as Newark, where it’s hard to find healthy foods.
“AeroFarms is great example, especially for urban kids, to say, ‘Hey, wow, we can kind of think forward and understand that we can still produce food without having hundreds of acres’,” said Philip’s EcoSpaces Director Frank Mentesana.
Students who have attended Philip’s for an extended time make it clear though that they have wholeheartedly adopted the lifestyle of healthy living, an encouraging sign the curriculum is making a difference in a largely lower socioeconomic environment such as Newark.
“Before I got to use all the cool (things like the) Teaching Kitchen, rooftop garden, I didn’t know a lot about growing food and how to get local food and healthy food,” said Day. “So this really taught me how to cook and do healthy things so I could have a healthy lifestyle.”
Even as Philip’s was trending on social media during the First Lady’s visit, CEO of Philip’s Education Partners Miguel Brito wanted to make clear what his main mission was through all of this exposure.
“Well, we’re really not so worried about the school itself, but what we really care about is how children eat in every school in America,” said Brito. “We’ve really taken some time to take our health standards and nutrition standards and try to fit them into the national school lunch program.”
Michelle Obama’s presence at the Philip’s Academy undoubtedly gives the school a legitimacy level it has never experienced before, offering the students an opportunity to spread change.
“I think that it’s exciting and motivating for the kids,” said Brito. “It just brings us closer together as a community and more realizing that the work we’re doing is actually being taken good notice of, especially around health, wellness, and nutrition.”
Brito also made it simple for other institutions who want to improve their students’ health by offering ways they can start small, and even free.
“First thing you do costs you no money,” said Brito. “Take all the salt packets out of the cafeteria.”
Montclair State | New Jersey