Veggie U: Teaching kids to grow, harvest and thrive on fresh veggies

How many times have you tried to talk a child into eating their veggies?  It’s a monumental task in some households.  Equally daunting is the fight against childhood obesity.  But the green-thumbed folks at Veggie U and their partner teachers are helping fight that battle…one vegetable at a time. 

Veggie U set up

I came into contact with the non-profit while attending a speaker I featured in a previous post (Robyn O’Brien).  I was immediately drawn to their display of seedlings and indoor grow lights.  When I started inquiring about who they are and what they do, I knew it was something worth sharing.

Veggie U tasting

The mission of Veggie U is to teach kids about where vegetables come from, and how they grow.  And the idea is if they understand it better and take pride in cultivating them, they are more likely to eat them.

veggie u feast day

It was started by a family of farmers in Milan, Ohio…the same people behind The Chef’s Garden which focuses their output on the need of chefs.  Several local chefs are also involved in supporting the program, as it educates the next generation of restaurant-goers about good food.

Veggie U lesson plan

The organization provides schools with everything they’ll need for an indoor garden.  They ship the seeds, soil, grow lights, root viewers…even composting worms (a big hit among the 3rd grade boys, I’m told).  They provide 25 one hour science-based lessons that can be taught during designated plant science or health class time.  The classroom eventually harvests 17 different vegetables, showcasing them in a “feast day.”

Veggie U studying

“I have always been interested in helping my students make better choices about food and daily exercise and this was the greatest gift to have a program that was designed to do just that. To top it off, it was already aligned with the Ohio Academic Content standards-Extended version (which are used for students with learning disabilities). This was such a bonus as an educator, to have a complete comprehensive curriculum that was already aligned with the standards and had all the materials that you needed to teach sensory friendly lessons of such an important nature,” said Kristin Dickerhoff, Intervention Specialist at Murray Ridge School.

veggie u teacher

Dickerhoff’s classroom has students with Autism, many who have severe sensory issues and avoid various food textures and smells.  Those kids often fixate on a narrow list of foods and therefore don’t get proper nutrition.

“Having the Veggie University curriculum and the opportunity to show children hands on how “Good Food” reaches their plates was such a blessing.  I was completely blown away at how these precious students who on a typical day would only choose to munch on crunchy chips or soft yogurt were trying raw veggies during the first week’s “veggie Testing” lesson,” said Dickerhoff.

Veggie U comparing soil

Now that Veggie U is part of their routine, Dickerhoff has launched “Healthy Snack Wednesday” in their Primary wing of 50 students.  Each week every student in the wing gets a healthy snack prepared by her class and delivered to each classroom.  Her special needs kids use this opportunity to practice communication skills during drop off.

“I can’t say enough about how much this curriculum has changed the lives of each and every one of my students and how it has evolved into so much more,” said Dickerhoff.

veggie u shipping

Shipping is their number one expense.  Kits are put together by volunteers, but they run $450 for new kits, $225 for refills or renewals.  They operate through grants, corporate sponsors, fundraisers and sponsorship.  Only 6% of schools fund their own programs.

The take-aways are real.  Veggie U reports a 30% improvement in willingness to eat veggies among their graduates.  Students develop writing skills as they journal the process.  Even vocabulary skill are incorporated. (Examples: hypothesis, variable, conclusion, germinate)

Veggie U watering

Veggie U is now in 36 states and 6,500 classrooms, with more than 164,000 graduates.  They have indoor gardens in every Cleveland Metropolitan School District elementary building, as well as Toledo, Akron and Canton schools.  They’re currently trying to grow their presence in Hawaii, where 85% of their food is imported, hoping to encourage future farmers.

Chef’s Garden

Every chef I’ve ever met speaks about the importance of fresh ingredients and working with what’s in season.  What better way to control the quality of what you serve, than to grow it yourself?  

Unless you’re a regular, you probably would never know the volumes of produce grown behind one of my favorite restaurants in Cleveland, L’Albatros Brasserie + Bar.  A tour of their garden left me hungry for a fresh summer salad and ashamed that I haven’t been taking better care of my own garden!

Chef de Cuisine, Temple Turner was gracious enough to show me around and walk me through what they’re growing, and what they make from their more than modest garden.

L'Albatros-greens

The staff works with a gardener, Lois, to plot out their plots and designate the best picking times for things like thyme and basil.  Turner says they are trying to get as many greens in the ground as they can fit.  They use things like Swiss chard and kale for salad specials.

L'Albatros-watercress-table2

Their two cascading watercress tables are just amazing.  They harvest from there every day for use in Watercress Cesar Salads and for garnish on nearly every other entree.

Chef-Temple-Turner

Fragrant concord grapes cover the back fencing.  Turner says they’ll use it in a sorbet, a compote for desserts or a sauce on a protein.  Same goes for the bright and bold currants.

L'Albatros-currants

About 20% of their produce during high season comes from their own garden, but they’d like it to be more.

FRISÉE AND BACON LARDONS WITH POACHED EGG

FRISÉE AND BACON LARDONS WITH POACHED EGG

“It provides some options when a picky table or diner asks to switch things up.  We pick out something from the garden as an alternative, harvest it and cook it on the spot…fresh from the garden,” the chef says.

Peppered throughout the plots are baby strawberry plants.  The fruit easily wilts almost immediately after you pick it.  So rather than incorporating them into dishes, they’ll offer them up to diners during garden tours.  Two or three times a night, guests are brought out into this little oasis after their meal, as a way to showcase what the restaurant does with the space.

L'Albatros-wildflowers

Even the flowers you’ll see decorating the bar, dining room and bathrooms come from this same garden

“It was tough to get it off the ground, and coordinate what they could harvest but once that was determined it got easier,” says Turner.

L'Albatros-watercress-salad

With limited space in the kitchen, trying to coordinate when to harvest and clean large volumes of their own produce in the kitchen is tricky.  But when you taste things like this watercress salad, made up on the fly in the L’Albatros kitchen, you’ll see it’s worth it.

Zack-Bruell-Oil-and-Vinegar