Bringing Kale to the Kiddos

Photo by Jennah Stillman, Corvallis Environmental Center’s Events and Outreach Coordinator.

Farm to School programs exist at national, state, and local levels in order to increase access to local food and nutrition education for primary school students. The Corvallis Environmental Center has established a program distinctive in the way it has grown deep roots within our community. 

“It’s based in partnership. It’s a community effort and that’s why it has been successful for a decade now,” says Cassidy Radloff, Program Manager of CEC’s Edible Corvallis Initiative, the umbrella under which Farm to School operates. 

Farm to School brings whole, local foods into schools in several different forms. Each month of the school year, one locally sourced, seasonally appropriate ingredient is selected as the ‘Harvest of the Month.’ This item is offered fresh in the lunch line or is incorporated into a unique meal made by utilizing the Corvallis School District’s Food and Nutrition Services central kitchen. 

In the same month, parent volunteers visit elementary schools and set up tasting tables so that students can try the same ingredient in a new way. 

Equipped with educational signage and recipes to hand out to students interested in learning more, the parents “get to be the fun food person in the cafeteria,” and provide “those small teaching moments with kiddos,” says Radloff. 

The produce used for the tasting tables is purchased by CEC, which is proud to pay the full price for the food they select from a whole slew of farms in the area. These range from larger, established farms such as Stahlbush Island Farms to smaller, family farms that may only be several years in the making. 

In addition to supporting a vibrant local agricultural economy, purchasing food grown nearby has major nutritional benefits. For example, “Broccoli loses about 50% of its nutrients within the first 24 hours after it’s picked. So if it’s being picked when it’s not ripe and then it’s being shipped across the country, it’s not as nutrient-dense as it would be if you’re buying it from a local producer,” explains Radloff.

So what did this all look like in the month of April? “Last month was kale, so we went to Gathering Together Farms, asked for a lot of kale, around 130 pounds of kale, and then with some volunteers went back to the central kitchen and prepared a kale Caesar salad. We got it all prepped to send out to 11 different schools in Corvallis and Philomath,” Radloff described. 

Following the tasting table, CEC will visit around 20 classrooms each month for ‘Classroom Food Adventures’ that allow the students a third opportunity to interact with the ingredient of choice. If they didn’t like the kale used in the lunch line or the tasting table, then maybe they’d like it in the kale spring rolls they made with the help of a FoodCorps service member leading an hour-long lesson. Other months, the produce will be used as a learning tool in a less food-like manner. For example, students will use their knowledge of physics to make containers designed to protect eggs from breaking when dropped from height. 

Put all these activities together, and a real opportunity materializes to change the status quo of food education.  

As it generally stands, “not only are kids not getting to cook in the classroom, they aren’t getting to learn about local foods or learn about agriculture or nutrition in any sort of form,” Radloff says, making it even more important that organizations like CEC offer such comprehensive curriculum. 

“You’re teaching kids through example. If you’re serving them a corndog and chocolate milk and iceberg lettuce, that’s what they see as a healthy meal. So supporting local Ag and actually feeding kids real food and teaching them how to cook it is setting them up for success later in life.”

That success could not happen without the help of so many players—the school district, Food Nutrition Services, parents, farmers, and educators—all woven together through Farm to School. These efforts manifest in the creation of a local food web, rather than a top-down food chain, allowing for a more resilient community in terms of their health. 

By Ari Blatt