Down East 2013 ©
It’s hard to believe that it’s been a year since I went to the White House  and heard about Michelle’s Obama’s Lets Move Initiative to help fight childhood obesity and raise healthier American children. I came home, “adopted” Central School in South Berwick , and have spent the past year teaching cooking and nutrition classes focused on fruits and vegetables. Every single student, from the pre-kindergarten through third grade, had a cooking class and did some hands-on learning and eating. But the crowning achievement of the year was building a hoop house where the kids planted spinach, kale, Swiss chard, beets, turnips, lettuce, fava beans, two types of peas, popcorn, and more. Teachers used the Hoop House to teach science, art, and music. Some teachers just took kids out there to read quietly, saying it was “a serene learning environment.”
The story of my work at Central School is the story of a community coming together over a good cause. It has been simply amazing to watch as parents, teachers, school board members, neighbors, and local and national politicians have come forward to help this project happen. It’s not often you hear about people on both sides of the political fence — friends, neighbors and even those who tend to fight against one another over various causes — working together towards a common goal: to help teach our children at a very young age what it means to really eat healthy.
The year ended in mid-June with an All-School-All-Local Salad Bar Party . I was working in the Hoop House one day, harvesting peas and kale and baby lettuces, when the idea hit. What would happen to all this food? How would the kids understand the full cycle of growing food if they didn’t have a chance to eat what they had worked so hard to grow?
With the help of the principal, the ever-energetic and optimistic Vicky Stewart, and many parent volunteers and local farmers, we set up a huge, long table outside the school cafeteria and served a gorgeous selection of greens, vegetables, herbs, and edible flowers. I spent the morning making three types of homemade salad dressings with the third-graders. They were as excited to make salad dressing as they might have been if it were ice cream. My favorite comment: “I didn’t know salad dressing could come from somewhere other than a bottle. This is really good!” We made a basic vinaigrette (but called it “Italian” because you gotta' talk the talk if you want kids to eat something new), a Green Goddess dressing (with lots of scallions and herbs from the Hoop House and a local yogurt as the creamy base) and Ranch Dressing because I’d been warned that kids won’t eat salad without Ranch! Our Ranch Dressing was made from low-fat Maine buttermilk and herbs from the garden.
Many local farmers contributed greens. We had a gorgeous mixture of sweet, crisp, early June greens as well as the “spicy mixture” of arugula, mustard greens, Mizuna, and more lettuces that pack a punch! At first the kids shied clear of the spicy greens until I set up a challenge of sorts. “Would you like sweet lettuce, spicy lettuce, or the best of all, a mixture of both?” I asked them as they made their way through the line of local green offerings. Sure enough after one boy said “Yea, sure give me the spicy!” most kids rose to the challenge. We also had cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, pepper strips, sun-dried cranberries, jicama, a gorgeous assortment of edible herbs, and flowers from the gardens at Strawbery Banke .
But the most popular items on the salad bar were the vegetables the kids grew themselves. We harvested kale, Swiss chard, micro greens, two types of peas, fava bean greens, radishes, and more. The kids were filled with pride as they ate, boasting “I grew this!”
The Salad Bar Party wasn’t the only excitement in the past month. Congresswoman Chellie Pingree learned about the project (by reading my blog, Notes from a Maine Kitchen ) and asked to arrange a visit to the school in May to see what we were up to. When a politician asks to come to your local elementary school, things heat up quickly. We had the town council, the town manager, the planning board, and many other local leaders, as well as parents, neighbors, and friends show up to watch Congresswoman Pingree tour the hoop house , talk to the kids, and help us “cut the ribbon” to officially inaugurate the first year of growing fresh food at Central.
Pingree told me about several schools throughout Maine that are doing all kinds of innovative work with the food (and quality of the food) they serve in their cafeterias. I plan on spending some time this summer meeting with visionaries from other schools who are growing food with kids and making Maine school food mean something more than frozen hot dogs and French fries. We’ve come a long way. We have a lot further to go.
Central School Third grade students had the opportunity to make salad dressings for the school’s end-of-the-year Salad Bar. Find some good local greens (either that you grew or from a Farmer’s Market) and serve with one or both of these dressings.
Italian Dressing (also called Vinaigrette)
1. Mix 2 tablespoons mustard with salt and pepper.
2. Add ¼ cup chopped chives
3. Add 2/3 cup wine vinegar
4. Whisk in 1 ½ cups olive oil. Whisk together.
5. Taste and add more salt, pepper, or oil if needed.
6. Place in a jar. Cover, and keep in the refrigerator.
1. Whisk 1 ½ cups mayonnaise and 1 cup lowfat buttermilk in a bowl.
2. Add 4 tablespoons finely chopped parsley, 4 tablespoons chopped celery leaves, 3 tablespoons lemon juice, 3 teaspoons mustard, and 1 ½ teaspoons onion power. Add 2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill.
3. Taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper. Cover and refrigerate.