One of its many perks, the New Century School features a home-cooked, locally sourced lunch program for students. Many of the ingredients used in the school lunch come right out of the TNCS greenhouse. In this way, the Garden Tuck Shop Program launched in October 2011 by Master Gardener and Executive Chef Emma Novashinski marries her two passions: gardening and cooking. Following is a transcript of an interview with Chef Emma that took place at the very tail end of summer about the program, what it means to her, and what it means for TNCS kids. After being cooped up all week from Superstorm Sandy, this seemed like just the right time to get back “outside.”
Part 1: Background
Emma Novashinski is an engaging and eloquent person to talk to . . . and she’s passionate about food. In fact, she’s so passionate about food and where it comes from, that when she saw a greenhouse going up on TNCS grounds, she walked over and asked if she could run the greenhouse as well as develop a school lunch program out of it. In Part 1 of this interview, she provided background on the program and shared some of her very relevant personal history.
TNCS: Where are you from, and how did you become interested in gardening and cooking?
Chef Emma: I moved here in 2006 from Guildford, Surrey in southeast England. My mum loved gardening—she was always outside when she wasn’t working—and I helped her out from the beginning. I must have loved it, too, though, because I know from experience that just exposing a child to something doesn’t always mean he or she will take to it. But for me, her love for the garden and cooking definitely had a huge impact.
TNCS: In what ways did you help your mother growing up?
Chef Emma: She would give my brother and me each a bowl when we would go out to play, and we had to find something edible along the way, like blackberries or raspberries. She was teaching us to identify edible things in nature from early on.
Wherever we went, whatever we were doing, she would always find something off the land that we would end up eating, usually herbs and fruits. And then we would go home and cook!
She also believed in homeopathy, so we used home remedies and aromatherapy. We even cleaned the house using natural ingredients like lemon juice, bicarbonate, and vinegar.
TNCS: Was it difficult to transition this way of living to Baltimore?
Chef Emma: Fortunately, Baltimore is in a similar climate zone to England and has similar plants so it was handy to come here because I am familiar with what these seasons have to offer. I always knew where to go blackberry picking and where the best apple trees were. And around here, there are even a few fig trees growing in front of shops. The shop-owners will call to let me know when the figs are out during fig season, and I can go pick as many as like.
That’s what happens—you get talking to people and they’ll tell you that there’s a mulberry bush growing in the park or that there’s catnip growing in the market roundabout, and you find out about these things that are just growing around. That’s my thing; that’s how I grew up, identifying things and knowing what’s in season and taking advantage of it–because that’s when it tastes best!
TNCS: Do you find that how you grew up, living in sync with the seasons, is unusual in some way?
Chef Emma: No one seems to grow up like that anymore. It’s in your blood, but it’s definitely something very new, a very revolutionary way of looking at food because it’s the most natural way. When I first came here from England, I noticed almost immediately that there was a lot of modified food–chemicals, additives, preservatives in the food that we don’t have in England. Even in the candy—it’s illegal to modify candy in England; it’s vegetarian. No animal byproducts. So, I noticed almost straightaway that I developed allergies, felt sluggish, began to put on weight . . . and it’s because the connection to nature, to our food source, to our most important part of wellness has been severed.
TNCS: Why do you think that the connection to our food sources was severed? How did that start?
Chef Emma: There has been a conscious decision to sever that connection. I think that the food industry and the health industry go hand in hand and together generate so much money that they have lost touch very deeply.
Food has been totally commercialized here. You can ask a child, “Where do strawberries come from?” And they’ll say, “the [supermarket].” There’s a disconnect there.
TNCS: The Big Question: How will the Garden Tuck Shop Program change that for TNCS students?
Chef Emma: The greenhouse on TNCS school grounds is intended to reconnect the students to where food actually comes from. Every class is going to start being in the greenhouse every day for half an hour. The plants that are in there now are perennial so they’re going to come back every year. We’ve got figs, brambles, berries, asparagus, rhubarb, grapevines, and more so the students are going to be able to see these plants go through the whole of their process and reemerge next year; we call it “slow food.” We can still do carrots and things in the spring to keep their hands in the dirt, as it were, but from now on I want to hand the greenhouse back to them so that they can see every stage from seeding to harvesting and, finally, to eating.
That’s why the program is called the “Tuck Shop.” A tuck shop is a place to eat—like “tuck in” to a meal—and instead of having soda and candy machines in the school, which is again, commercialized, give them a tuck shop where clean food is available.
TNCS: Can you describe the menu?
Chef Emma: My son has been on the program from Day 1. He’s my nemesis; if I can get him to eat it, I know it’s good. I had to develop a menu for kids that wasn’t going to challenge them too much. We’ve got about 50 items, and I think I can comfortably say that at least 50% of the meals get eaten and they’re all nutritionally sound.
I’m trying to make it as generic as possible and making it repeatedly and consistently the same so TNCS students can start to identify and recognize the food. The teacher has a menu on hand, and I don’t deviate from that—unless the produce is bad. For example, we got some bad peaches, but right now there’s lots of apples and watermelon, so it’s “1,001 Ways to Cut an Apple”—apple crumble, apple pie, apple streudel, applesauce, apple butter . . .
TNCS: What do you want parents to take away from this?
Chef Emma: You grow in the same environment as your food, so you have a divine connection. Your children and your plants are growing under the same sun and being touched by the same wind, seeing the same clouds and the same moon. The plants growing in your environment have withstood those particular elements. They are perfectly engineered by nature to be exactly what you physically need, right now.
A lot of people spend their lives looking for something they feel is missing, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the majority of that feeling disappeared if people had that connection with their food source.
. . . to be continued