Something’s bubbling at Mott Haven school

Photo by Elizabeth Chen Students at Mott Haven Academy learn about growing nutritious food.

Focus is on food in Haven Academy wellness program

Sayda Arriola was stunned when her son Adam, a Mott Haven 3rd grader, told her that a visitor named “Chef James” baked rhubarb pie for his class.

“I remembered thinking, ‘Rhubarb pie? What in the name of Jesus is that?’” she said. Arriola wanted to know who “Chef James” was and learned he was a food education instructor who visits the school.

Chef James’ cooking sessions don’t take place at a posh private school—he’s whipping up pies at Mott Haven Academy, the three-year-old charter school near E. 136th St. and Brook Ave.

In March, a survey conducted by the Food Research and Action Center revealed that one of three residents in the local school district were not able to afford enough food. Two-thirds of Mott Haven Academy’s student body are in foster care or receiving public assistance, according to principal Jessica Nauiokas.

Despite this socioeconomic reality, the school has been running nutrition and fitness education programs for the past year, with help from the Bubble Foundation, a non-profit group that provides free wellness programs to underserved charter schools. Bubble was founded in early 2010 by Jessica Nauiokas’ sister, Amy Nauiokas, and her business partner and ex-husband James Connolly, “Chef James.”

“When our 7-year-old started attending school in the city, James and I were really concerned with the lack of nutrition and fitness education in urban schools,” said Amy Nauiokas.

She thought it made sense to use the school where her sister was principal as Bubble’s pilot school. Amy Nauiokas’ idea is to adopt a school for two years, bring in wellness programs and guide the school toward sustaining the programs independently.

“We value wellness and to be able to achieve that is really hard to do on our budget,” said Jessica Nauiokas.

Bubble is funded by a number of private corporate donations and charity dinners held for Soho and TriBeCa families, Amy Nauiokas said. Upscale Manhattan food suppliers have donated to Bubble’s nutrition program, BubbleEATS—which consists of a weekly class to teach students about food and trips to the community garden next door, the Wanaqua Family Garden. Students and instructors engage in monthly “family-style” meals in which they serve themselves from communal bowls.

“They get so excited to see the vegetables they recognize,” said Bianca Colbath, one of three full-time volunteer instructors at Haven Academy. “Teaching these kids where their food comes from will allow them to demand healthy food as they get older.”

Bubble plans on withdrawing from Haven Academy next year, as they pursue other schools in the city, including the Dream Academy in Harlem. Nevertheless, Jessica Nauiokas is confident that the programs will last after their departure.

Local education activist Ray Figueroa is skeptical. The interactive aspects of Bubble’s program sound promising, he said, but children’s nutritional health depends mainly on the ability of individual families to afford healthy food.

“Wellness programs can fall flat unless they emphasize the structural needs of families,” said Figueroa. “The economics of poverty discourages healthy eating. We have the highest childhood obesity rates in the city. ”

But Arriola couldn’t be happier with Bubble’s involvement with her children, who now ask her to give them Chef James’ recipes.

“As a concerned mother, I feel there should be no shortage of healthy food for my children,” she said.