The Mobile Food Lab (MFL) is an entirely customized school bus outfitted as a brightly lit greenhouse, exhibit space, and lab space to teach kids about healthy eating; all within 300 square feet of moveable space. This "food truck" is bait for hooking students K-8 on science, art, and better eating habits. The experiential mobile classroom travels to underserved communities to teach kids that healthy food can be grown and enjoyed everywhere, and to explain how these plants nourish our minds and bodies. The MFL's primary missions are to help children develop a healthy connection to food by harnessing their innate curiosity through a multisensory experience of smell, sight, touch, and taste. The MFL uses food as the medium to teach a curriculum of science, technology, engineering, art, and math (STEAM).
The bus is scheduled to visit schools, parks, and public events and currently serves the entire state of New Jersey. For a school visit, the bus pulls up to the curb and a class boards the bus. The first thing the class does is to have a seat underneath an array of skylights in the central "nest," a social space made from 4,000 yards of rope, hand-knotted from traditional sailor's knots. This calm sanctuary is designed to be a place for orientation and discussion about what the students are most excited about learning. The class then divides up into three groups of to learn about 1) Science, where they learn about germination, hydroponics, vertical farming, the science of composting, the science of taste, the distribution of nutrients in a leaf/plant, and test plants for sugars, starch, and nutrients. And learning how eating these sugars, carbohydrates, and nutrients affect them inside and out. Then 2) Art, or painting with herbs, making tea bags, creating leaf skeletons and 3) Cooking, learning how to prepare and cook leafy greens and vegetables for a healthy meal.
Our challenges were to create a mobile classroom in a cozy space that would meet the needs of the programming and curriculum, which we partnered with our client to design. To optimize the use of space, we created "zones" with flexible stations that could be used interchangeably and social areas for larger group discussion. The flexible learning stations allow each student the opportunity to engage in hands-on experiments, group work, and independent investigation. Designing the MFL challenged us to create a robust and multi-functional experience both inside and out. The bus physically embodies the nonprofit's multidisciplinary mission; with art and science lab areas including digital microscopes, a kitchen area equipped with induction burners and sinks, and mobile cooking carts for learning outside in the "field," fully equipped with an all-weather awning.
In addition to Science, Art, and Cooking, an overarching curriculum goal was to present healthy greens, veggies, and herbs as both physically and culturally accessible. The aim was to make kids curious and comfortable with the ingredients so they would ask their parents and families for fresh food as part of a balanced meal.
To design an experiential vehicle centered around food literacy that is both educational and fun. Food literacy teaches kids where food comes from, how it nourishes and impacts us and shapes our world.
Create a mobile exhibit and classroom for hands-on activities that allow children from grades K through 8 to learn:
• The key themes of Food Science, Urban Agriculture, Creativity, Cooking
• A healthy connection to food through cooking and eating fresh foods
Our solution was to design a new type of experiential vehicle, one that was akin to a mobile greenhouse, classroom, science lab, and art studio.
We began by determining the programming and experience flow- how can 30 kids fit on this vehicle at once? So we organized the bus into three sections, with a central social area (the Nest) that helped center the experience.
There are three zones within the bus, that can support different sets of curriculum as needed. A Cooking Area, complete with a hydroponic garden, cook top, sink, and cutting service. A Science Area, complete with digital microscopes, LCD monitor, test tubes of herbs and spices, and a "taste" chart to learn the science of taste. The Art Area includes a countertop for arts and craft activities, as well as storage for the materials and two carts that can be wheeled off the bus for additional flexible countertop and storage space.
The exhibits on the bus include:
Geography Exhibit: The goal of this exhibit is to teach kids that herbs and spices grow all around them, and emphasize the plants that make their location special. Many plants that grow (or could be grown) in their backyard are used for cooking or medical benefits. This exhibit can lead to a discussion about herbs and spices found in other regions and used in regional cooking.
Plant Anatomy Exhibit: The goal of this exhibit is to teach kids from K to 8th grade the parts that make up a plant, their function in keeping the plant healthy, and examples of plant parts as herbs for cooking and medicine.
Microscope Exhibit: In this exhibit, students explore plant specimens under a microscope and learn what plants are made of and how they function through a scientific lens.
Flavor Profile Exhibit: The goal of this exhibit is to have kids taste new herbs and spices, and to describe the taste of the plant. When an herb is tasted, the kids find a magnet representing that plant and place it in a description circle (Spicy, sweet, bitter, sour. salty, or citrusy). The exhibit emphasizes how flavorful fresh food is, the different types of flavors, the science of flavor (taste buds, plant composition, etc), as well as flavor combinations (recipes).
Our design and production scope for this project was all encompassing. As the Project Team we created the brand and visual language (inside and out), physical design of the interior and conversion of the bus, physical design of carts, cabinetry, hydroponic system, and all physical components designed the experience, student journey, and programming, exhibit design of each of exhibit panel and content, and designed and selected all the components inside the van (magnets, vinyl graphics, AV, microscopes). We performed feasibility studies of different vehicle types, and purchased and delivered the vehicle on the client's behalf. We offered fabrication oversight and fabrication and build out (with ExPlus). We also designed and developed the website, www.mobilefoodlab.org.
This project was a new type of experiential vehicle, and our measures for success are; how often the bus is booked, the number of visits to the bus at the Meadowlands (homebase), the number of visits to the website site, the response from students and teachers, and number of jobs created for adults with autism through our client the Reed Foundation.
Since the bus was deployed in September 2018, the bus has been booked for months out, particularly the warmer months. Teachers have been raving about the hands-on activities, and our client has received a lot of press.
It is too early to tell the website metrics, but they have been growing steady over the course of the past 6 months (sign up for the bus is on the website). The bus has already reached dozens of schools in underserved communities, positively affecting thousands of kids.
Additionally, the bus has served to provide dozens of jobs for adults with autism, who help maintain and upkeep the exhibits and programs