Teaching Moments

Farm-to-school programs coupled with nutrition education encourages students to try new items.

By Becky Schilling, Editor

Nutrition education is becoming an increasingly important aspect for child nutrition directors. With the new meal regulations in effect as of July 1, school meals must now include a wider variety of fruits and vegetables in larger quantities than ever before. One strategy to get student buy-in is to implement a farm-to-school program combined with an educational aspect. 

“The problem with the Healthy, Hunger-Free Act is that we’re going to be required to serve more green vegetables, including spinach, and more orange vegetables, like sweet potatoes, and more whole grains,” says Michelle Marker, director of programs for The Nutrition Group, a food management company based in Irwin, Pa. “When we’re required to put these items in school lunch and these kids are not eating this stuff at home, then they don’t want to eat it at school. That’s where we run into a bit of an issue.”

To combat this problem, Marker is developing a new nutrition education program, Wellness Wednesdays where students will be able to sample menu items that meet the new meal regulations. The program also includes sending Wellness Wednesday material home to parents, with the hope that they will continue the lessons in the home.

“We participate in as many things monthly as we can in the cafeteria,” Marker adds. “We feel like the cafeteria always needs to change and be exciting and a welcoming spot for the kids.”

An important aspect of creating this engaging atmosphere for the kids is through the company’s farm-to-school program. During the fall, a school might bring in an apple farmer who talks to the students about his orchard. In addition the farmer will bring different apple varieties or apple cider for the students to taste. “This encourages the students to go home and say to their mom that there’s an apple farm down the road where we can go buy fresh apples,” Marker says.

Adding character: Another tactic Marker has found works well is creating costumed characters that visit the schools. Molly is one such character. Marker purchased a cow costume and asked a seamstress friend to make Molly a dress and bow to wear. “I take Molly on the road and I team up with local dairies. It’s great promotional stuff for the local area and it promotes the farm-to-school program. We give out samples of yogurt or cheese, and Molly helps me with the nutritional lesson we provide for the kids.”

Molly was such a hit with the students—even the older students, who Marker says are difficult to reach with nutrition education—that Marker created Calvin, Molly’s brother. While Molly works mostly with dairy farmers, Calvin focuses on produce. “With Calvin, I’m able to bring in a local farmer and we set up a little fruit and vegetable stand,” Marker says. “Kids don’t realize that carrots grow in the ground. They think they come out looking like the baby carrots. With the stand they can see the produce in its whole form and we cut it open and they can see what it looks like inside.”

School gardens: Rob Corliss, founder of All Things Epicurean (ATE), a Nixa, Mo.-based culinary consulting company that aims to connect people to their food, environment and wellness, also found children were more likely to try new produce if there was a nutrition education component involved. Specifically, Corliss works to get students involved in the planting, harvesting and cooking of produce.

ATE’s first school endeavor—the company also works with restaurants and manufactures—was at Goddard Preschool in Springfield, Mo., where Corliss’ daughter attended. Four raised beds and 12 pocket gardens were planted. The gardens grow a mix of vegetables, herbs and flowers.

“The kids get a connection with food and environment,” Corliss says. “They get to put their hands in the dirt and watch the seeds come up. They learn colors by identifying the plants.”

The children also help harvest the garden’s bounty, which is then washed and bagged. The bags are available for free for parents to take with them for use at home.

The second ATE school project was at Pleasant View Elementary also in Springfield. Corliss had befriended Curtis Millsap, a local farmer. Millsap had helped develop a 90-by- 30-feet greenhouse and outdoor garden at the school. Corliss approached Millsap and the school’s foodservice provider to determine how they could expand the garden program. The two men transformed a science lab into a working kitchen, supplied with equipment from the school’s foodservice team. They then created an educational component where students worked in the gardens and then cooked the harvested produce in the kitchen.

Every Thursday, 120 kindergarteners, first- and fifth-graders attend “class” with Corliss and Millsap. The younger students spend their time in the gardens with Millsap, planting, harvesting and composting. The fifth-graders spend two weeks with Millsap in the garden and two weeks with Corliss in the kitchen, where they learn about the history of food and culinary techniques. They then use the harvested food to prepare dishes for tasting. Some of the items made include fried green tomatoes, produce-stuffed omelets and salads.

“It’s just amazing when the kids get that creativity with that hands-on experience,” Corliss says. “You’re seeing these kindergarteners chowing down on arugula salads because it’s something they helped put in the ground and watched grow.”