How Baltimore Got Kids to Eat Their Vegetables
What the Nation Can Learn from Baltimore's Farms to Forks Program
Kids hate vegetables.
I know, I know, stop the presses...
While this "news" itself isn't exactly a headliner, the increase of U.S. childhood obesity rates — which have tripled since 1980 — certainly is... And we have to find a way to establish better eating habits in our youth.
We are officially in the throes of a public health crisis. We know why we need to change; it's how to do so that has been a struggle.
For example, school officials in Washington D.C. just killed a measure in their new "Healthy Schools" bill that would have upped the amount of vegetables served to the capital's schoolchildren. The reasoning? The extra servings of broccoli, peas, and carrots will find themselves at the bottom of cafeteria trash cans.
"We heard from many that if schools are serving mushy, flavorless green beans that students are simply throwing away, that doubling the portion size would simply double the amount of mushy, flavorless green beans that are thrown away," said an aide to one of the bill's authors.
So what happens when a kid says he doesn't want to practice the piano? Do you just roll the thing out the window?
No. You go back to the basics. You get the kid to start small; you not only tell him or her to do something, but you also show the child the importance of what they're doing.
That's exactly what Baltimore City School's director of food and nutrition Tony Geraci set out to do last year.
While working as an institutional foods salesman, he grew disgusted at the trend of schools to abandon chefs and cooks and replace them with "warmer-uppers," whose only task is to reheat foods that have been pre-cooked in distant factories and shipped to school cafeterias.
The process by which their lunch was being prepared, he opined, is the reason that kids were throwing away those mushy green beans. They taste terrible!
Last year, Geraci introduced a farms to schools program. Instead of plopping down a pile of soggy carrots in front of a child and hoping for the best, the program takes the students through the entire journey of the carrot — from the local farm to their plate.
Geraci entered a partnership with a rundown, 33-acre farm just outside Baltimore so the students could become familiarized with the process of growing fresh, organic produce. The school district returned the farm to working order and dubbed it The Great Kids Farm.
The school district runs the farm with help from students, parents, and volunteers.
The fresh crops — potatoes, spinach, peas, beets, and a plethora of other fruits and veggies — are taken into the classrooms where the children learn how to prepare them in a healthy and delicious way. The classroom platform is called Food for Life.
"I saw that when kids had a hand in the food preparation they would eat foods they would never eat at home," says Ariel Demas, a teacher in the program.
Food For Life places importance not only on the cooking and preparation of the food, but also on the health benefits and cultural and environmental implications. The idea is to get kids excited about where food comes from, how it makes you feel, and what types of cultural connections food has around the world. And the class is actually fun!
A Food For Life class is a cross between a cooking class and geography lesson. The teacher will play some tunes from the country's origin — say, Peruvian flute music for a lesson on mashing Peru's famous blue potatoes — and teach the children how to prepare a delicious meal from scratch. By the end of the class, the children are eating dishes that would rival the dinners in most American households.
The program also feeds something that children have abundance of: curiosity.
"Those greenhouses are full of little kids that are coming out here and seeing this and are thinking to themselves that there is something different, something better than what is currently being offered," Geraci told Baltimore's City Paper.
This farm-to-fork education is crucial in city schools in particular, since many of the students are not exposed to farm fresh foods. Many inner city youth have never seen — much less eaten — a baby radish.
Geraci isn't shy about his ambitions for the project. He wants the farms to fork programs in every school in the U.S.
"This is doable anywhere in this country," he says proudly.
And if the Baltimore program continues to be successful and sustaining, he may just get his wish.