Farm to School program teaches nutrition, connection to food
Excitement could be heard in the unconstrained murmuring of elementary school students at Blue Ridge School Monday morning as they filed into the cafeteria. Tables were set with Mason jars, pre-cut vegetables of almost every color of the rainbow, salt, pepper and oregano.
This week, students around Jackson County have the opportunity to learn about different foods and where they come from during a program called “Farm to Summer.”
On Monday, Laura Cabe and Jena Kranz spearheaded a demonstration for students at the Blue Ridge School in Cashiers in which each student completed a Mason jar rainbow salad to take home with them. The demonstration and nutrition lesson will be repeated Wednesday and Friday at Fairview School and Smoky Mountain High School respectively.
The program was made possible through grants completed by Cabe, the nutrition director for Jackson County Schools, from the National Farm to School Network and the United States Department of Agriculture.
“My job and responsibility, I feel, as a school nutrition director is to feed students nutritious food,” she said.
Cabe partnered with Jackson County nonprofit Uncomplicated Kitchen to assist with the summer program. Jenna Kranz, founder and director of Uncomplicated Kitchen, led students through the process of making the Mason jar rainbow salad. Along the way, she explained the nutritional importance of fruits and vegetables of all different colors, where certain vegetables in the recipe come from, or how they grow, and encouraged student engagement and experimentation.
Laura Cabe (left) and Jenna Kranz (right). Hannah McLeod photo
Least popular of the spread? Probably the radishes. But, there were almost no kids in the room that didn’t at least try them, something both Cabe and Kranz know is a key step toward nutrition goals and food education.
Working in school nutrition, Cabe said, is akin to real time marketing. When there are new foods on the line that kids have never tried, or never even heard of, it can be hard to convince them to go for it. Often, Cabe finds herself walking through a crowded cafeteria offering new or nutritious options to kids.
“Just try a bite,” is the line she uses over and over again to get kids to try something new, something nutritious. Nutrition is a vital part of all around health. One-on-one attention and food education are some of the best ways Cabe has found to foster better nutrition.
On Monday, students first made a dressing of oil, vinegar, salt, pepper, agave nectar and dried oregano for the salad they were about to construct. Kranz explained the origin of agave, the most foreign of the components used in the salad dressing and let each student try a spoonful. The glee of the elementary schoolers could hardly be contained as a swell of voices called out asking to “try it again.”
After the salad dressing had been constructed and shaken to combine, Kranz and the students began to move through the colors of the rainbow. They started with red tomatoes, dropping them into the bottom of the jar, followed by carrots, corn, baby spinach, purple cabbage, radishes and protein rich garbanzo beans to top it all off.
As Kranz walked around assisting students and engaging them in conversation about food, she could be heard telling students how beautiful their creations were, what a great job they were doing. When they smiled back at her there was real pride on their faces. Normally, it would take a big bottle of ranch dressing to get young kids half as hyped up about raw salad.
Students at Blue Ridge School prepare their own rainbow salad from a variety of vegetables. Hannah McLeod photo
“Kids always enjoy the building and the hands-on aspect of this. And just getting to shake the jar is so hands-on and fun and they always laugh. It’s really fun. I like working with little kids,” said Kranz.
The goal of this program within the schools is to help connect kids with the food they eat, so they better understand the importance of good nutrition and how to achieve it.
“We know that fresh and healthy nutrients and ingredients lead to a longer life, with better health conditions,” said Cabe. “I just want the kids to get things in their hands to taste them, see them and know where they come from. So I’m hoping with Jenna too, we can expand this quarterly and seasonally. That’s my goal.”
Kranz works with people of all ages through the Uncomplicated Kitchen.
Its mission is “to teach community members how to plan meals, shop for ingredients, and cook healthy, simple and affordable recipes.”
“We bridge the gap between the food people have access to and the tools and knowledge they have to prepare nutritious meals for themselves and their families,” Kranz said. “Whether people shop at the farmers market, grocery store, or receive food through charitable organizations, Uncomplicated Kitchen teaches our community that healthy food is affordable and simple.”
Kranz previously worked as an educator, and then owned a private company selling granola. She had just built a commercial kitchen for that business when she decided to give it all up and start the Uncomplicated Kitchen in late 2019.
“I realized that there was a gap in between the food people had access to and their ability to do something nutritious,” she said.
A student at Blue Ridge School grinds salt as part of the salad dressing recipe. Hannah McLeod photo
While volunteering at the Community Table, a food resource for Jackson County residents, she noticed that most people took pre-boxed or pre prepared ingredients that, while convenient, were not the most nutritious options. She saw that very few people went for the beautiful, organic produce that was donated regularly.
When she was selling her granola at farmers markets, Kranz would hear the plethora of questions people asked vendors and growers about what a certain vegetable was and what to do with it.
Additionally, friends were always asking Kranz what to do with vegetables purchased from the grocery store or the farmers market. Kranz realized that she could help people find greater access to food and nutrition by educating them on how to prepare various ingredients and recipes. The nonprofit operates on occasional grants, but most of its funding comes from local individuals that are appreciative of the work Kranz does.
“I’m really lucky that I can just look at food and it makes sense to me, I know I’m lucky, but a lot of people don’t have that,” said Kranz. “I help everybody. It doesn’t matter if you make a million dollars a year or you don’t make anything. I think that you still deserve to know how to cook meals for yourself and your family. So that’s what I do. I help people cook, I help people shop and we’ve really focused on basic pantry ingredients.”
Uncomplicated Kitchen has classes on canning, preserving, cooking different recipes and preparing ingredients people have never worked with. All classes finish with something to take home, because eating, and creating that sensory connection, is an invaluable part of the experience.
“I have so much joy in doing that work and I’m so thankful every day that I get to get up and do this job,” said Kranz.
After students had put together the rainbow salads, Kranz challenged them all to try at least one bite of what they had created.
The students had different opinions regarding their favorite vegetable of the day.
“Agave!” one shouted immediately.
“Spinach,” said another student timidly, tapping the green layer in her jar.
“I don’t know what this one is,” said one boy, digging a garbanzo bean out of the jar with chubby fingers, “but I love this.”
When Blue Ridge School students left the cafeteria Monday, they each had a large Mason jar, filled to the brim with fresh, colorful vegetables.
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Informative story and the photos are a great compliment!
Would love a mason jar of salad!!