Tag Archives: food preparation

Confessions of a school gardener

23 Nov

I have a confession. Before I tell you my secret, though, recall with me for a moment all the work we’ve done around salads at the George Watts edible garden over the past couple of years.

First, we planted a Salad Garden. We held “Salad Days” in the garden, where kids plucked fresh lettuce leaves, made dressings and nibbled their creations. Then we did the same thing in classrooms, turning salads into an afternoon snack. We grew radish, carrot and tomato plants, brimming with the perfect salad toppers.

I’ve been pushing salads for so long that I’m worried teachers are annoyed with me. But I keep doing it anyway, because salads are easy. You don’t need ovens or pots to prepare a salad.

That’s why what I’m about to tell you is slightly embarrassing for me: My own daughters hate salad. Here’s a picture of my 5-year-old daughter tasting lettuce that her classroom harvested…

I’m telling you this for two reasons:

1. I want to make it clear that I’m just an ordinary parent trying to help my kids eat better. I don’t have all the answers. If I had all the answers, my daughter wouldn’t be wincing in this photo.

2. Though I don’t have all the answers, I deeply believe that one solution is installing “kitchen gardens” and cooking classes at every public school. Every time I volunteer with a classroom or in the garden, I witness this truth: Kids are way more likely to taste and enjoy vegetables when they grow and prepare the food themselves.

Doing it at school means you benefit from the tipping point of vegetable tasting: Once a leader-kid dares to try something, others fall in line. That’s not such a good thing when you’re talking about cigarettes, but when it comes to tasting a radish, I’m a fan of peer pressure.

Granted, not every kid likes the salad, broccoli or whatever it is a classroom is harvesting and tasting. But plenty of kids do, and some of them live with the sort of food insecurity that makes it impossible for them to eat fresh veggies at home. And I’ve seen plenty of “a-ha” moments, as kids realize — lo and behold — they actually do like a vegetable that they didn’t like when it was served on a cafeteria tray or poured out of a can. In fact, they like it better than they normally would, because a vegetable tastes better when you pull it out of the ground and eat it within minutes. If you’ve done this before, you know what I’m talking about.

For some time now, it has troubled me that this deeply held “truth” of mine didn’t apply to my own children. Until now. Last night, when my family was eating out, something changed.

My 8-year-old daughter ordered the salad bar!

If she ever wins the Nobel Prize, she’ll see a beaming smile on my face that’s only a hair bigger than the one I wore last night.

She tried to be nonchalant about her big move, but because I’ve been more or less obsessed with salad-eating for nearly two years now, I ruined the moment by practically lurching across the table and asking, “What made you want to order the salad?”

“Because we made them in class,” she said. “When we were picking the lettuce, I was kind of worried that I wouldn’t like it. But then when we ate the salad, I realized that I actually do like it.”

I hope you caught that: My own daughter, who has been oblivious to the salad revolution I’ve launched at home and at school, is now willing to eat lettuce, because she and her classmates harvested and made a salad themselves.

As it turns out, she only ate some of the restaurant salad, even though she tried building it a couple of different ways. I asked her what was wrong — thinking maybe she didn’t like the dressing.

She said, “It just doesn’t taste as good as the lettuce from our garden at school.”

On a semi-related note, carrots in the garden are ready for harvest. Students really love discovering what’s growing under all that soil.


Picking tomatoes in October & other amazing feats

15 Oct

Even as I impatiently await the return of truly cold weather — so I can once again wear my favorite black boots — I marvel at what this extended warm weather has done for the school garden.

Every day, students are able to pick ripe tomatoes from the vine and eat them on the spot. I mean, would you just look at this abundance?

Tomatoes in October

Kids that start the year feeling lukewarm (to put it kindly) about tomatoes become more open-minded about this delicious treat they can pick right from the vine.

Another amazing feat of Mother Nature: The basil keeps growing and growing and growing. In my daughter’s Lower El classroom, students recently harvested some basil, took it back to the room and made pesto to mix with noodles as their afternoon snack.

Basil, as far as the eye can see

You, too, can enjoy pesto made with basil from the Edible Garden! I’ll be making pesto using the fresh basil and summer-harvested garlic grown by students in our Edible Garden — and selling it by the jar.

If you’d like to have your own jar of delectable Edible Garden Pesto, simply post a comment here!

I’ll sell them for as long as supplies last. All funds go toward the purchase of mulch to protect the school garden through winter. I’d ask you to give what you think is fair for this mini-fundraiser, perhaps $5-$10. Thanks for your ongoing support!

Fresh basil from the garden becomes ...


Besides a shovel, the most useful tool for a school garden

13 Sep

This is a gift. I’m writing this post for any teacher or parent in Durham or North Carolina who’s worked hard to establish an edible school garden. It’s tough work, so HOORAY for getting this far. Awesome job, you!

But if you’re anything like me, you may be realizing that the harder work has just begun. Because now you have to figure out how to get a bunch of already-overworked teachers, who may not know or care the least little bit about gardening, interested in taking classrooms outside to do … what exactly?

Our garden's first muscadine grapes

So here’s what I want to give you: a sequenced set of fall/winter 1st-5th grade lessons to use in a school garden, all of which correlate with North Carolina Standard Course of Study. Very easy, very relevant.

15 Lessons for 1, 2 and 3 graders (LCnG_Lower_EL)

15 Lessons for 4 and 5 graders (LCnG_Upper_EL)

I say “easy” because Durham teachers wrote these lessons with other non-gardening teachers in mind.

But I want to put the emphasis on “relevant.” You might believe that it’s important for kids to spend time outdoors and that it’s unquestionably worthy to provide fresh, garden-grown vegetables to children. And I would agree with you. But some might argue that there are more pressing, academic-type things to accomplish during the school day, and to those people I would say, “OK then, here! These lessons just might be the perfect tool for you!”

At our school, we installed an educational, edible garden. But teachers didn’t see how it related to curriculum. To some, it seemed like just one more thing they had to do. A few of them told me that, quite honestly, it simply “wasn’t their thing.”

Result: The garden was sort of a fun “extra” that didn’t connect with classroom curriculum. That’s why I asked four teachers from our school to write the lessons. So now, classroom teachers have a set of structured lessons, and each class has a scheduled weekly garden/science time slot during which they can use these lessons if they wish.

Our school was lucky enough to win a grant from Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation for this lesson-writing project. And we want to share the series with anyone who’s walking down this road with us, trying to develop a school-wide gardening program.

The lessons are brand new, so if you notice anything that needs fixing, I hope you’ll tell me. I also hope you’ll tell me if you decide to use the lessons. It helps us make the case for more funding of these sorts of projects. We’re working on 30 more lessons now, for spring semester.

Every few pages, you’ll see a recipe for something healthful that classrooms can make using what’s ripe in the garden — or a fabulous dip they can make for fresh veggies, since so much of our garden’s bounty can be eaten raw.

Mostly, though, you’ll see lessons that accomplish two things:

First, these lessons connect students with the land and the seasons, and help them discover where food really comes from. (Answer: Not, in fact, Costco.)

Second, they allow teachers to teach a lot of the things they have to teach anyway — decomposition, plant life cycles, insects, weather, erosion, etc. Only this way, they get to do it outside in a hands-on, experiential way.

New garden beds and walking path on the playground

Teachers at George Watts Montessori have just begun to roll out the lessons, with each classroom doing one lesson per week, more or less in sequence.

Tip: If you want to try the lessons out, here’s what to get in the ground now: herbs, radishes, carrots, lettuce, spinach broccoli, onions and wheat (for 4th and 5th grades, and it doesn’t need to be planted quite yet). Why? Because these are the plants that students will grow, harvest, cook with, and use in the lessons. If you plant those things, students will have what they need to delve into some cool science and literacy lessons.

What do you think? Is this something your school and teachers could use?

Radish with your chips?

9 Jun

Our friends down the road at EK Powe hosted a Radish Day last week, which turned out really well by all accounts.

For the entire school day, the fearless Jen Minnelli, chair of the PTA’s Slow Food committee, stationed herself at a “Taste Table” with tortilla chips, radish salsa and vegetable dip. And as kids and parents passed by, they stopped to enjoy the healthy snack. Hopefully, as they nibbled, students remembered the radishes, carrots, lettuce and more they’ve been growing in their beautiful school garden.

This makes me dream about a day when kids can harvest and make daily snacks straight from their own gardens. (Get the radish salsa recipe here.)

Thanks goes to Whole Foods, who partnered with EK Powe for the event! And to Jen for her all her work.

Jen and her son at Powe's garden - photo courtesy of The Durham News

Green smoothies and 320 adventurous eaters

8 Jun

Today we held our final food-in-the-garden event of the school year at George Watts, and what a finale it was. On the menu: grilled cheese sandwiches with tomato and basil, and green smoothies. More on that in minute.

First, I must thank Becca Wright, our school nutritionist, and the team of volunteers who worked in the garden all day, helping kids make the connection between what’s growing in our school garden and the food we were tasting. The volunteers walked the kids to the tomato and basil garden beds (and the now out-of-season strawberry bed), encouraging them to pluck and eat when the fruit is ripe. We picked a few of the Sun Gold tomatoes and popped them right into our mouths. Absolutely wonderful!

We used our garden’s fresh basil for the sandwiches, as well as sharp cheddar cheese donated by Cabot Creamery, a family-owned cooperative in Vermont — thanks, Cabot Creamery!

Now, back to the menu. The green smoothies were (unsurprisingly) the hit of the day. The kids cut up the fruit and spinach, measured ingredients and combined them in the blender. Result? Greenish-brownish smoothie.

Inevitably, one kid in each group was brave enough to be the first taster. And after one kid said, “Mmmmm!” almost everyone else fell in line. Even kindergartners gobbled it up. Parents, you would’ve been proud. You’ll find the recipe at the end of the post.

Our school nutritionist Becca Wright

A green mustache

Our sandwich chef volunteers

Kids picking garlic from the garden

How to Make a Green Smoothie

1/2 banana
12 strawberries
2 cups spinach
1/4 cup orange juice
1 tablespoon honey
ice cubes

Combine all ingredients and blend until smooth. Add ice as desired.

Eat it: A taste of the fall garden

21 Dec

Things are growing in the garden. So now what?

That’s one of the vexing challenges of a school garden: finding ways for kids to “cook” the food they’ve grown. A few schools, such as Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Berkeley, where Alice Waters started her first famous Edible Schoolyard, have built a dedicated kid-friendly kitchen. The rest of us muddle through.

Red lettuce, head lettuce and arugula go into the mix.

At George Watts, we’re only in our first year of gardening, so we’re winging it. My plan of attack, so far, has been this: Grow (mostly) food we can harvest and eat without necessarily cooking it. Secure a water source for cleaning. Set up permanent work stations outside.

Harvesting the herbs

Our first harvest/eating event with the kids was called Salad Days, and it’s definitely worth repeating.

Our fabulous school nutritionist, Becca Wright, and I led classrooms through harvesting from the garden lettuce, arugula, radishes and herbs, then preparing a tasting menu.

(And speaking of Becca, here’s a tip: If you’re a Title I school, find out the name of your school nutritionist and start brainstorming with her about programming ideas.)

On the tasting menu: salad with kid-made dressing, radish salsa and veggie dip. We used tortilla chips and carrots as vehicles for the dip. Becca had to buy the carrots at the store, because our garden carrots weren’t mature enough yet for harvesting. Not what we’d planned, but you can always know exactly when things will be ready for harvest when.

Becca, the nutritionist, makes veggie dip with students.

Kids were split into different groups to harvest the lettuce and radishes, pick and chop the herbs, mix the herb dip, concoct a salad dressing from the ingredients we brought, and make the radish salsa.

Tip: Invest in kid-friendly knives. Becca brought these fantastic green plastic ones so no one would lose a finger — something we’ll want to buy for future food prepping with students.

Not only did the kids get a nutrition lesson from Becca, they flexed their math muscles (measuring ingredients) and made a connection between the plants we’re growing and the food they eat.

One (newish) teacher actually said it was the best thing she’d done so far at the school. And it felt great to finally eat something after months of getting the garden up and running.

Veggie Dip

1/2 cup plain yogurt
1/2 cup light cream cheese
2 tbs chopped chives
1 tsp chopped thyme
1 tsp chopped sage

(Note: We used chives, thyme and sage, because they’re growing in our garden. Use whatever you have.)


1. Measure yogurt and cream cheese and put them in a large bowl. Mix well.

2. Chop fresh herbs. Add them to bowl. Stir.

Radish Avocado Salsa

We grew radishes and cilantro in our school garden this fall, among other things. This recipe came from Isaac Dickson Elementary School in Asheville, N.C. The original recipe called for poblano or jalapeno peppers, but we left them out and added tomatoes instead.

2 avocados
6 large radishes
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
2 tsp freshly squeezed lime
1 tsp olive oil
2 large tomatoes chopped


1. Half, pit and peel the avocados and cut into chunks.

2. Clean radishes and tomatoes and cut into small chunks.

3. In a bowl, stir together avocado, tomatoes and radishes.

4. Chop 1/4 cup fresh cilantro and add to avocado mixture.

5. Stir in 2 tsp lime juice and 1 tsp olive oil.

6. Stir together lightly and enjoy with tortilla chips.