The Charlie Cart Project is an all-in-one, hands-on learning program using a kitchen on wheels to teach both children and adults how to make healthy food choices. “Imagine walking into a classroom of 4th graders studying math. At the front of the room is a bright, colorful kitchen: that’s the Charlie Cart. The students are using the mortar and pestle to make guacamole and learn about early civilizations,” says Carolyn Federman, Founder and Executive Director of The Charlie Cart Project.
Federman—former lead at The Edible Schoolyard Project in Berkeley, California—brought together an expert group of designers and educators to work on increasing access to food education. The result was a mobile kitchen paired with an adaptable, fully tested class curriculum. “The Charlie Cart is a platform for education; we provide the tools, curriculum, training, and support for organizations that want to bring hands-on cooking right into the classroom,” Federman tells Food Tank.
Since the project began in 2016, the Charlie Cart now operates in 150 locations across 37 states. “Each of our… sites have come to us by word of mouth—clearly, there is a growing urgency to teach kids about food,” Federman tells Food Tank. Through the Charlie Cart curriculum, children learn how to use fresh foods and essential kitchen tools. Educators link the Charlie Cart lessons to math, science, and English language arts—while connecting the dots between health, food, and the environment.
The Charlie Cart is also a tool for empowering educators. “Our goal is to give educators the confidence to lead hands-on cooking lessons, and empower the organization to create a sustainable program,” says Federman. “With a straightforward, accessible set of tools and a network of support, Charlie Cart users become change agents within their own organizations [and] communities.” The empowerment piece, explains Federman, makes the Charlie Cart stand out from most food education models.
Charlie Cart users have diverse backgrounds and work settings. “Some are schoolteachers, others are librarians, and increasingly, they’re program directors at food banks and other community hubs. While not all of them are formal ‘educators’ they are certainly taking on that role as part of their work,” Federman explains to Food Tank. The champions address the community’s most pressing issues, such as healthy food access, diet-related disease, and environmental health. “What sets them apart is the extra step they take to tackle these [issues],” Federman tells Food Tank.
As a result, new uses for the Charlie Cart emerged beyond the classroom. Libraries take part in the action with 25 libraries—including locations in Arkansas, Ohio, and Tennessee—using the mobile kitchen to adapt to their patrons’ needs. “Librarians today have a whole new job description, from supporting the unhoused to managing digital collections. They are embracing food education as an important aspect of their work, both for their patrons and the community at large,” Federman tells Food Tank. “The grassroots nature of it,” adds Federman, “is so promising from the perspective of food system change.”
In turn, The Charlie Cart Project provides organization-wide support to educators. The Project connects educators with administrators, nutrition services staff, and other actors during on-site training. When not on-site, the team writes grants, supports programming, and links educators in different locations. “We…designed a network for our users to share best practices and access the peer-to-peer support that is so crucial when blazing new trails,” says Federman.
Through a network of 750 trained Food Educators, The Charlie Cart Project reached 200,000 children and their families in 2019. “These people are catalysts for culture change in their communities—we’re just giving them the tools to make it happen,” says Federman. In the long-run, The Charlie Cart Project aims at changing eating habits across the U.S., using the network to deliver continued, high-frequency cooking and nutrition lessons for both children and adults. Federman tells Food Tank, “when the Charlie Cart network is several thousand sites strong, we’ll upend the food system once and for all.”
Photo courtesy of The Charlie Cart Project/Mackensey Alexander Photography