Enthusiasm, passion, and a little risk-taking led to the first ever farm to school taste test at Detroit Public Schools Community District. This October, we served cinnamon roasted acorn squash to about 1,400 students, teachers and staff members at Mackenzie Elementary-Middle School.
This event was four months in the making, because not only was the squash served at the school, it was grown on the school’s farm too. Mackenzie has a school garden and a one acre farm, where students help plant, water, and harvest a variety of vegetables. This year over 1,000 pounds of produce was harvested. We grew potatoes, green beans, black eyed peas, cucumbers, pumpkins and acorn squash. The majority of the work was done during summer school. Middle school students put in transplants, helped lay plastic for weed control, and pulled binding weed every week. Even the kindergarten class got in on the action. They were the watering committee, and checked on the plants every day, even in the 90 degree heat. It was a learning experience for everyone involved.
In September when school resumed, we realized just how large of a harvest 1,000 pounds was. We began making plans for the vegetables. A farm stand was held at parent-teacher conferences where families and staff could take home produce for free, and some was used for classroom lessons, but we still had so much more.
When the idea first came to mind to do a school-wide taste test with the acorn squash, hesitation and fear set in. Lunch time at Mackenzie is nothing short of chaotic. Still, we pitched the idea to our kitchen manager, Ms. Terrell, and she was very excited about it! There was immediate support from teachers and administrators too. The farm had become the talk of the school. Pumpkins and squash were appearing in the office, in the library, on teacher’s desks, and the harvest was slowly consuming the parent resource room. It just made sense to do an event during which the whole school could participate.
Students were thrilled to try something new in the lunchroom! Most of the kids did not know what acorn squash was and had never tried it before, but that did not stop them from eagerly grabbing their sample. They smelled the cinnamon and saw the fun buttery yellow color and soon announced they liked it. Students from kindergarten through eighth grade participated, and the majority said they liked it or loved it. It was hard to get an accurate number because the voting board turned into an art board, but I took the many requests for seconds as a positive sign. Many teachers also tried acorn squash for the first time that day. One of the third grade teachers liked it so much she later told me she bought some for Thanksgiving and served it to her family.
Making the taste test a reality was truly a team effort. The middle school students harvested over 100 acorn squash, then our lead garden teacher, Ms. Brownfield, made sure they all got inside and sorted. The kitchen staff and our head district chef cleaned, cut, and roasted all of them. Everyone went above and beyond to make the event a success.
The taste test is one of the proudest moments I have had in my service. It was an invaluable experience to bring into the school and helped us take a step towards a schoolwide culture of health. This year the school came together through the farm. Students and staff were very proud to say everything was “Grown at Mackenzie.” People are already asking what will be planted this spring and which vegetables will be in the cafeteria. Stay tuned: the farm to school taste test could become an annual event.