The taste of wellness

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Fourth graders Kaylee Walch and Mallory Lang enjoyed crunching on locally-grown apples last week during the Midwest Great Apple Crunch. The event was one of several taste tests held at MFL MarMac throughout October, which is Farm to School Month. (Submitted photo)

Preschoolers in Nicole Gray’s class enjoy a snack of fresh vegetables. Gray recently received a grant for Farm to Preschool projects in her classroom. (Submitted photo)

“I chose to pursue the grant to make the funding aspect of purchasing new foods easier and to hopefully end up trying more foods each month,” Gray explained. (Submitted photo)

October is National Farm to School Month, a celebration of the growing connection between students and healthy, locally-grown food. MFL MarMac is one of over 40,000 schools across the country to participate in the program, with kids sampling and learning about several new foods throughout the month. Students tried apples, cabbage, zucchini and sweet potatoes. (Photo by Audrey Posten)

Zucchini bread was a big hit at the middle school, particularly since it was incorporated into a brownie. (Submitted photo)

Farm to School Month connects students with locally-grown foods

 

By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times Editor

October is National Farm to School Month, a celebration of the growing connection between students and healthy, locally-grown food. MFL MarMac is one of over 40,000 schools across the country to participate in the program, with kids sampling and learning about several new foods throughout the month.

“The dietary department provided samples of recipes created with locally-grown produce through Taste Test Tuesdays, including cabbage, zucchini and sweet potatoes,” explained McGregor Center nurse Jennelle Schroeder, who also handles the middle school’s wellness activities. 

Produce came from the school gardens, local individuals and the Iowa Food Hub, which works to connect farmers and consumers through distribution and marketing efforts of locally-grown food.

Students sampled the foods during lunch, with each eliciting different responses from the kids. 

“We made coleslaw from the cabbage from the school garden and from the Iowa Food Hub,” said MFL MarMac food director Pat Echard. “The school garden had the purple cabbage, so we mixed it and had lots of comments from the kids.”

Schroeder said cabbage wasn’t as big a hit at the middle school. However, zucchini was popular, particularly because it was incorporated into a brownie. She noted that some students said they’d like to see it featured on the regular menu.

At the Monona Center, Echard said staff didn’t tell students zucchini was included until after they’d eaten it.

“We saw that they ate them right up,” she said. “After we talked to them, most said they would eat them again, even if it had zucchini in it.”

Tuesday, students were set to try sweet potatoes, which Echard said were going to be cubed and baked. Kids will also get a taste of a fresh one, a change from otherwise sampling the vegetable from a can, she added.

Speaking last week, students at the McGregor Center weren’t looking forward to the sweet potatoes, but many said they would give it a try, including Tyler Trappe.

“I don’t like sweet potatoes, but then, I didn’t like zucchini,” he said. “I liked the zucchini bars, which was surprising, so I’m willing to give it a try.”

Just taking a taste, or a “polite bite,” as the elementary school calls it, is a good experience, said middle schooler Aleyna Rodriguez.

“I enjoy trying new things,” she said. “I never want to grow up in life not knowing what’s different.”

One food students sampled this month is not new. In fact, for many, it’s their favorite fruit. Oct. 22 was the Midwest Great Apple Crunch. Students from all the MFL MarMac schools “crunched” on local apples during lunch, said Schroeder, “signifying their dedication to nutritious eating habits as well as their support for locally-grown foods.”

“We have gotten apples and pears from Swanson Orchard, right here in Monona, all fall,” Echard said.

Aside from tasting the foods, Schroeder said students are also learning about them. At the elementary level, teachers spoke with students about the produce. At the McGregor Center, the message of buying local was discussed during homeroom health lessons and posters were hung throughout school. HYPE, the school’s wellness team, read facts about the taste test produce during daily announcements.

“We’re promoting and putting education behind it,” Schroeder said.

While Farm to School Month highlights the importance of trying new, locally-grown foods, it’s just one of the ways MFL MarMac has introduced kids to healthier eating habits. 

“It is a goal of the school’s wellness committee to continue to promote good nutrition in our students by participating in events such as Farm to School Month, increasing our purchase of locally-grown foods for use in the school lunch program and continuing the successful utilization of our school garden’s produce in school meals and projects,” Schroeder stated.

The McGregor Center developed a garden in the spring of 2014. So far, cabbage, melons, blueberries, grapes and more have been grown in its two sections. The produce has supplemented the school lunch program, while the gardens have been used in the science curriculum and to hold classes outdoors.

The elementary school garden has been a part of the curriculum for many years, with students taking part in planting, maintaining, harvesting and eating produce. Echard said tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers have been available since school started. 

She noted that involving students in the process, especially at a young age, stimulates their interest.

“With new regulations, we are to have more vegetables, so I think, if we get them involved early, like in elementary, they are more excited,” she said. “When they help pick and bring it to the kitchen, they are excited to see it served and taste it.”

Preschool teacher Nicole Gray said her students have been receptive to trying new foods.

“In the past, we have tried fresh foods out of our school garden and if we come across a new food in a story,” she said. “I’m always surprised with the number of kids who will try the new food and the number of them who like it.”

At lunchtime, Gray said staff encourage students to take a polite bite. It doesn’t have to be big, and they don’t have to like it, but sometimes kids are surprised, she added.

“So many kids automatically look at something and they say they don’t like it,” she said, “but when they try it, it isn’t bad.”

Gray recently received a Food and Fitness Initiative (FFI) Early Childhood Farm to School Mini Grant for Farm to Preschool projects in her classroom. This was the first year she applied for a grant, which was also given to classrooms at North Fayette Valley, Decorah, Waukon and Clayton Ridge. Funding for the grants came from a FFI Early Childhood Grant that was awarded earlier this year from the Northeast Iowa Funder’s Network to reach preschools beyond Head Start classrooms with the Farm to Preschool message. 

With the funds, awardees will purchase local foods for classroom taste tests, cook with local foods, purchase items to help cook in the classroom and visit local farms and gardens.

“I chose to pursue the grant to make the funding aspect of purchasing new foods easier and to hopefully end up trying more foods each month,” Gray explained. “I like that they tell me which foods to try. Some of the foods aren’t my favorite either, and I do tell the kids that, but I still try them right along with the kids.”

Gray said she hopes having kids try new foods at school will encourage them to eat those foods at home.

“Just having the exposure to new foods is beneficial at school because, as parents, we get stuck in our own ways,” she said. “If it isn’t something we prefer, we most likely aren’t going to cook it for our kids to see if they like it.”

Gray said she and other teachers plan to send recipes home with students to share with their families, hoping kids will encourage their parents to make a food they enjoyed. 

“Cooking with your kids is a wonderful thing,” she said, “and I encourage all families to ask your child if they would like to participate with preparing a meal.”

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