“Today, everybody is going to be a cook!” Cheers and smiles burst forth from a room of four and five year olds as Chef Kathy Gunst introduced the day’s culinary adventure to a class at The Central School in Berwick, Maine. In an effort to educate kids and their families on the importance of healthy eating and where our food comes from, Kathy, Maine’s very own food pioneer, began working with The Central School three years ago to develop a project called The Outdoor Classroom.
A food writer and passionate locavore, Kathy’s 14 cookbooks and numerous feature articles in prominent media outlets gained her renown and respect in national culinary circles. In 2010, Kathy received the opportunity to join 800 other chefs and culinary professionals in Washington, DC at the launch of Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move Campaign, the first lady’s primary White House initiative that aims to solve the problem of childhood obesity in the United States and to improve school lunch programs. At the event, the first lady directed Kathy, along with the best and brightest members of the American food community, to return to their hometowns and make it their mission to enrich and improve the foods being served to kids at their local schools.
The First Lady warned the group that they might meet resistance in trying to make changes to school food systems that would both cost more money and require additional effort. Kathy Gunst, however, met none of these challenges when she returned to the school that her young daughters attended as children and presented the principal with a plan for a comprehensive food curriculum centered on building and cultivating a school garden. In the months that followed, the project gained tremendous momentum and the support of the community brought Kathy’s vision to fruition. With the help and generosity of families, volunteers, and local business people, The Central School now has its very own hoop house to grow fresh fruits and vegetables, its own composting program that utilizes kitchen scraps from school meals, and an amazing cooking and nutrition education plan that teaches kids the importance of what they put into their bodies.
I was lucky enough to see the “fruits” of Kathy’s labor, when I joined her and a group of wonderful volunteers last week at The Central School for Smoothie Day. Some people thought that it sounded completely crazy to make smoothies with 150 kindergarteners, but I was ecstatic to see a program like this in motion and it was a day I will never forget. I arrived at the school cafeteria early in the morning and helped to cut mountains of fresh fruit and set up 8 blender stations, equipped with plastic knives made especially for kids, cutting boards, measuring cups and spoons, and a variety of milk, juice and yogurt for the kids to use in their concoctions.
After a swarm of tiny chefs filled the cafeteria, Kathy introduced the day’s project, “Today we will be making smoothies with fresh fruit!” The kids excitement was palpable and it was all that they could do not to jump across the table and start “cooking.” Kathy began a brief lesson by introducing the concept of local food vs. exotic food. Local food was something that could “grow right here in South Berwick, Maine.” In contrast, exotic food grew in far away places, where it was warm and sunny all year-long. She then brought the kids’ attention to a tray of whole fruits, including bananas, apples, pineapple, melon, pears, strawberries, raspberries and mango. The kids identified each fruit, and Kathy asked them whether each would be considered local or exotic. It was eye-opening to see how many kids had never seen a mango, but it was even more amazing to hear them shout out that apples are local, “because I pick them in my backyard!” They truly understood the difference between local and exotic foods in a matter of minutes.
Before we set out to blend up our yummy treats, Kathy had one more point to drive home with the kids. She asked, “Do you see any sugar on the table?” The kids replied with a chorus of “NO!” She asked, “Why do you think I didn’t bring any sugar?” Responses ranged from, “because you forgot it,” to “because its bad for you” and even “because its not local!” While all of these guesses were endearing, Kathy refocused the kids by asking them how the fruits in front of them taste. She described the tart crunch of the apple, the juicy squish of the strawberry and the velvety fleshiness of the cantaloupe – these fruits all had natural sweetness, so we didn’t need to add sugar to our smoothies. The kids nodded with fervent approval.
It was finally time to cook! I sat down with a group of 4 kids and we each took a turn picking out our favorite fruit, cutting it into jagged pieces with the kiddie knives, and chucking it into the blender. We added a questionable mix of orange juice, milk and yogurt and they took turns pushing the button to blend as I securely held down the lid to prevent a smoothie volcano. The moment of truth arrived as I helped them pour a taste of the smoothie into their tiny cups. We each tasted a sip and I could see their little minds working hard to decide whether they liked this somewhat foreign texture and taste or not. The result was unanimous; “It’s awesome!” they squealed. My group was so enamored of this treat that they decided to name it “magic smoothie” because it was so extraordinarily tasty!
We continued smoothie-ing away with 3 other classes of kids that day, and with each group I was able to see more and more how special this experience was. Some of the kids probably didn’t have regular access to fresh fruits and vegetables at home, and it was humbling to see their faces light up when they got to try something new that they knew was good for them and delicious. It made me feel incredibly proud to help these kids gain an experience that they might not have had otherwise because their family resources couldn’t allow it. This program is wonderful in so many ways, but what struck me most was how fantastic it was to see kids of all backgrounds getting together and having fun learning about healthy food.
With generous donations from Organic Valley and a slew of loaned equipment from The Central School teachers, the expenses from smoothie day came to only $50 – the lessons learned were priceless. The Outdoor Classroom and Kathy’s cooking lessons get kids excited about the food they eat by showing them that they have the power to grow their own food and prepare their own meals. The program instills a curiosity in kids about food that simply can’t be taught without getting their hands in the dirt or on their ingredients. The Central School is creating a generation of discerning little eaters that truly care about the food that goes into their bodies. These kids teach their parents about nutrition when they tell them about their day at school and lead by example when they choose to try to make something on their own rather than grab a bag of chips. Kathy Gunst and the team at the Central School are raising healthier kids, and like the produce growing in The Outdoor Classroom’s hoop house, they cultivate these behaviors “right here in South Berwick, Maine.”