“I’m sorry, but there’s no more spinach” is not something you ever want to say to a group of students as a food educator.
And yet, last spring as the school year was winding down, I found myself in the cafeteria holding a two-pound tub of baby spinach and watching it fly out of the container until there was none left and I had to tell my little eaters the sad news. I was overjoyed and amazed by my students’ newfound desire for spinach. This was not how I had anticipated ending my year of service nine months earlier, at the beginning of the year.
I first met these students last October when they took field trips to my service site’s one-acre teaching farm. As the students unloaded from the school bus, their energy and enthusiasm for being at the Grow It Green Morristown farm and seeing Farmer Shaun, my supervisor, was electric.
A few weeks later, I visited their school to conduct a swiss chard taste test in celebration of National Farm to School Month. The district’s head chef cooked more than thirty pounds of chard that was grown less than three miles away from the school at Grow It Green’s farm. The taste test display was fun and colorful: a bright poster board where kids could use stickers to vote if they loved, liked, or tried it and leave post-it notes with any pictures or comments they wanted to share.
The swiss chard was a vibrant success. Nothing endorses a food more strongly than having a student say that it tastes better than ice cream. James’s post-it note read, “thi is betrr then ic crem.” Aida, a seven-year-old, personally thanked Farmer Shaun for the delicious Swiss chard on a post-it; while Oliver, another six-year old, told me that it tasted so good he wanted to marry it.
Several months later, as I settled into what had become my normal teaching routine, my students remembered that first taste test. During my lessons, I found increasingly more ways to expose students to new vegetables, including many leafy green vegetables (collards, kale, and spinach) prepared in a variety of ways. We blended baby spinach into smoothies, pureed our own hummus and made vegetable faces, and layered fresh fruit parfaits with unsweetened yogurt.
By April, the kids had tried sautéed greens a number of times, so naturally I was thrilled when the school’s chef asked me to help her prepare collards. Branded as “Chef Cara’s Crazy Collards,” they made their debut on the lunch line sautéed with garlic and olive oil. Before the third lunch period was over, I received the following photo from the chef:
That afternoon, as I handed out 150 recipe cards to students rushing to their buses, I couldn’t help but feel that FoodCorps and its approach were working. Students who initially hesitated before trying cucumbers were now requesting vegetables and nearly fighting over the last few leaves in a container of baby spinach. These moments motivate me to continue to find new ways to play with food and expose kids to different vegetables. Most importantly, it serves as proof that farm to school programming is making a difference in the lives of kids by improving their habits and health. Every new day serves an opportunity to watch a child discover a new vegetable they like and hopefully bring that enthusiasm home to their family. As a new service year is beginning, I can’t wait to share my passion for cooking and gardening with the students of Morristown and look forward to months of learning with and from them.