Carolyn Federman with one of her Charlie Carts, a self-contained kitchen used for food education.
Carolyn Federman with one of her Charlie Carts, a self-contained kitchen used for food education.

Have cart, will travel: Portable kitchens bring edible education into classrooms

Food coverage is supported by a generous donation from Susan and Moses Libitzky.

Carolyn Federman has become an expert in getting picky children to eat foods they don’t like.

“Studies show that kids need to be introduced to a new food somewhere around 17 times,” she said. “As a parent, you have to be patient and keep serving that food.”

But when asked whether she ever got used to eating the tongue she’d see on her own kitchen counter, something she told J. was one of her formative Jewish food memories growing up, her own advice didn’t exactly apply.

“Unfortunately, seeing the entire tongue on the counter like that was prohibitive,” she said wryly. “I think it would have to have been served to me 17 times, perhaps in various forms.”

Federman, 51, has spent the majority of her career in food education, working with food pioneers such as Jamie Oliver, Alice Waters and Michael Pollan, and co-founding the Berkeley Food Institute. She has seen how involving kids in growing or cooking food, even if it’s not familiar to them, increases the likelihood that they will become fans. That’s how she knows most children eventually will eat their veggies.

That understanding is one of the inspirations that led the Saratoga native to found the Charlie Cart Project, a Berkeley-based nonprofit that offers food education in the form of a movable kitchen cart and companion curriculum. Though it’s been around for only four years, the Charlie Cart is being used widely by educators at schools, libraries, hospitals and food banks across the country. What started with a K-5 curriculum is now being used to teach adults about healthy food, too.

“The recipes are appealing to all ages, and once you get the system it’s easy to modify the educational content with each recipe,” said Federman. “If adults have little to no cooking experience, the cooking content is the same.”

Federman’s childhood memories of food center around her mother and the dinners she made for the family every night. It’s something her nonprofit tries to encourage other families to do, often with the kids leading the way.

“It’s not that she had incredible cooking skill — hamburgers made in an electric skillet with a can of Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup poured over them was a go-to quick meal — but she had so much love and passion that I have so many wonderful food memories associated with her,” she said.

If we can’t bring all kids to the kitchen, we can bring the kitchen to the kids.

Federman lost her mother while in college, and her career in food began almost by accident. Later, she came to see a connection between the two.

“It wasn’t that I sought out food as comfort for missing my mother,” she said. “But when I found food as a profession, I realized it was filling that role.”

It started one day after she had moved to Berkeley in 2001 and was on maternity leave. She accompanied a friend to a corporate marketing pitch meeting, agreeing to act as her event planner even though she had no such experience.

During the meeting, the person they were pitching mentioned being a close friend of Chez Panisse’s Alice Waters and said the chef was looking for someone to coordinate the 30th anniversary celebration of her storied restaurant.

Federman must have been convincing as an event planner, because soon she was meeting with Waters. They hit it off, and she ended up planning the 30th anniversary; from there she became director of development and then executive director of the Chez Panisse Foundation.

During her long tenure, Federman led Waters’ groundbreaking program, the Edible Schoolyard Project.

“I could see how the Edible Schoolyard was really impactful, and I also saw that as we toured people through it, that it’s not accessible for everyone to build a full kitchen and garden. Some people need to start in a different place.”

At the same time, she was raising her now-teenage kids in Berkeley and volunteering at their elementary school, teaching cooking. She had to use a rolling cart to bring things from her car up a steep hill. From that experience, the idea of the Charlie Cart was born.

“If we can’t bring all kids to the kitchen, we can bring the kitchen to the kids,” said Federman.

The project’s name is an ode to the chuck wagon, which once fed cowboys on the American prairie. Federman calls the Charlie Cart the chuck wagon’s great-grandchild.

Carolyn Federman's Charlie Cart.
Carolyn Federman’s Charlie Cart.

But the Charlie Cart has been designed for the current century, with an induction cooktop, a convection oven, and a sink with a greywater recovery system. The kitchen equipment is housed inside cabinets in primary colors that are made mostly of ecofriendly materials — for example, its walls are made from recycled paper composite.

“It comes with 172 pieces of equipment, which is enough for 30 kids to cook hands-on,” said Federman.

A designer friend created the prototype and they funded its first production with a crowdfunding campaign in 2015. The money raised allowed them to build out the first run of carts as well as develop the pilot curriculum.

Despite no real marketing plan, said Federman, “before we finished the pilot, we had orders,” mostly from food educators who had found the project online. Carts are now at 165 sites in 38 states around the country. Each cart costs $9,500, including equipment and a training visit by a Charlie Cart Project staff member.

Locally, the carts can be found in public libraries in San Francisco, Berkeley and Redwood City and in the Santa Clara and Pittsburg school districts, to name a few. Educators use the curriculum to help children think not only about where their food comes from, but about their own health and the environment, using skills in math, science and language arts.

Federman worked with three Chez Panisse chefs developing the recipes and writing the curriculum, with additional input from numerous educators. With so many kid-tested recipes at her disposal, in 2018 Federman published a cookbook, “New Favorites for New Cooks: 50 Delicious Recipes for Kids to Make.”

With a new decade comes Federman’s desire to see food education in schools become the norm rather than the exception.

“We want to be part of every place where children are learning,” she said.

In addition to the continued work with adults at food banks and libraries, she said, “we’d like to do some evaluations of what it looks like when you have really robust food education across an entire community. We have a few ideas for pilots starting in 2020 and 2021 to learn how that work can be used to change policy.”

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."