Sustainable School Lunch: Garden Tuck Shop Program Part 2

Part 2: Clean Ingredients

Part 2 of The New Century School interview with Chef Emma Novashinski concerns expanding awareness of what’s in our food—“cleaning the ingredients,” as she puts it. Read on . . .

TNCS:  Can you talk more about the ethos behind the Garden Tuck Shop program?

Chef Emma: I really want people to know why, as in, “Why can’t [my child] have more of the things he likes on the plate? He can’t because that’s not how the program works in order to get your child a balanced meal. But it’s not just about nutrition or even food cost;  it’s also about responsible portioning. The child cannot make the best decisions—that’s our job. [The program] is definitely the best decision you can make and take back some of the control over what your child eats. We say to the picky eaters, “Do with it what you will but know there’s no extras. If you’re hungry, try something else on the plate.” There’s so many different levels that this teaches them.

TNCS: How is the program going in its second year as compared to last year?

Chef Emma: Last year was hugely experimental; I pushed them as far as I could to try as many new things as possible just to see what I could get away with. This year they actually are familiar with the foods in the program so they’re not coming in and saying, “oh my gosh—what is this?”

this tray features soup, salad, crumble, and a hoecake

Good nutrition and appropriate portions are all part of the Garden Tuck Shop’s delicious daily lunch at TNCS; featured here is cauliflower soup, pepper and tomato salad, poached pears, yoghurt and granola, and rusk and milk

TNCS: [In Part 1] you mentioned that your son participates in the program. How big of a role did he play in the development of the program?

Chef Emma: Well, I had cleaned up my own food source pretty quickly after moving here, but then I had Quin, and he had to go to school. But the quality of the food in public school wasn’t acceptable to me. I also realized that just his exposure to what other kids were eating and the peer pressure would have an impact in what he chose to eat, and I couldn’t really comfortably allow him to be around it.

Next I realized that not everybody has a choice. I thought to myself, “How can I clean his food sources, clean other kids’ food sources, and expand that to my community”? And that’s when I walked three blocks from my house [to the school] and saw them putting up a greenhouse. So, I offered to do the gardening, install the plants in the greenhouse, and then developed the program from there.

TNCS:  Can you elaborate on what “clean your food source” means?

Chef Emma: Cleaning food means choosing pantry items that don’t have additives or preservatives or genetically modified ingredients. Walmart, for example, sells GM food. People think its easy to go there and pick up essentials or do the weekly shop, but are they aware that the food source could be full of poison to extend shelf life?

It can be very hard for people to see how to change. They might say, “I have to buy organic,” but there’s lots of things you can change without having to do that. All you have to do is literally “clean” your ingredients by using what’s in season, what’s locally available. This is where people can become defensive. I don’t want people to overhaul their lives. Because it’s easy to stand on a pedestal and say, “You should be doing this or you should be doing that,” but that’s not what anybody should be doing—they just need to know what’s in the products. And then, because of that, it would make more sense to do more cooking at home.

TNCS: So, using all organic foods isn’t necessarily a prerequisite for cleaning up our food sources?

Chef Emma: I wouldn’t say I’m all organic, and I don’t think there’s any point being organic if you’re still going to have a carbon footprint and ship your stuff over from Chile or California. The idea is that it’s natural. If you’re going to cook at home, for example, you would use more natural ingredients and not allow toxins to creep unseen into every aspect of life.

The program is vegetarian, however, because it’s logistically easier; if I was going to do meat, I would have to have a local source.

TNCS: It sounds as if this program might expand awareness back at home, too. What does this mean for parents?

weekly trip to greenhouse for tending plants and exploring nature

A primary class visits the greenhouse to tend plants and gather the day’s bounty

Chef Emma: The parents have an opportunity to be involved because with a commercial kitchen and a greenhouse we can offer parents better options for ingredients. They don’t have to change anything they’re doing or cooking except that this way they can “clean” the ingredients they would use. There’s a practical level for at home.

The program is multifaceted. On one level your children have access to an all-natural, seasonal meal that has been home-cooked everyday. On another level, they have access to a growing space where they can recapture the relationship to food source. On another level there’s the educational benefit of learning what is in season by going into the greenhouse and having the practical experience of looking after the garden and even learning the science behind how plants work. From there you get yet another level because the children become more interested in wanting to cook food themselves. Next, you start to reintegrate family meals and cooking at home. Then another level would be providing the resources so that you don’t have to change what you prepare at home, but you can make better choices about the ingredients themselves. So, it starts to feed into the home that way. Kids will already be educated, speak the language of clean food. They will already want to make better choices for themselves.

TNCS: When you say “providing the resources,” did you literally mean come pick stuff out of the greenhouse or were you referring to educational resources?

Chef Emma: Both. First, Home Ec [or an equivalent] should be there; academia has overlooked the fact that you can eliminate so many [health] problems, like ADHD and allergies [evidence also exists for dyslexia, dyspraxia, and possibly some features of autism], with a clean diet. So that should be the first learning tool we teach kids. You can’t make good decisions if you’re fighting sugar or you’re run down. Second, parents can have access to the whole thing—come get herbs!

profusion of herbs fresh for parents to come and harvest

Fresh herbs for the taking . . .

TNCS: So, let’s get to the nitty gritty of why the program is so important. How will eating fresh food that’s in season improve overall health and wellness as well as our children’s cognitive function?

Chef Emma: Bringing [this kind of education] back is important. People aren’t learning to cook; they’re not learning to garden. And that’s further creating this dischord between people and nature.

When food grows in the same environment you’re growing in, you’ll have a connection to it. It’s very important for people to understand that what’s growing right now is important. That’s why root vegetables grow in winter and greens grow in spring. Because greens have a diuretic effect that cleanse out the system, and carbohydrates that grow in the winter have this sustaining, comfort-food element. They pack a few extra pounds on you so you stay warm. In summer, there’s the fruit with the high liquid levels that are refreshing. Nature will provide exactly what you need physically and mentally. That’s another reason why it’s really important that we reinstate that connection because she’s there going, “I just grew mint tea. You guys just came out of winter, and I just grew mint that’s great for the digestion!”

We don’t even know the properties of our food. That’s crazy to me. Our food—our fuel—is the most important decision we can make to have wellness. People forget about that. They don’t associate food as a fuel.

TNCS: And finally, what’s your favorite food?

Chef Emma: Oh gosh, I just want to say bacon! I think I would have been a vegan spiritual guru if it wasn’t for pork.

Emma splashes sunshine wherever she goes

Master Gardener and Executive Chef Emma Novashinski inspects her plants

  . . . A perfectly lighthearted ending to some “heavy” ideas!

Epilogue: Food Fight

School lunch, as Chef Emma mentioned, can be a contentious issue, and it’s certainly a divisive one in this country, as one ABC news story shows. Not everyone has ready access to homemade, locally sourced food for one thing. Remember the 1980s when President Ronald Reagan tried to classify ketchup as a vegetable because it was cheaper than, say, peas or green beans to put in school lunches? Amidst current First Lady Michelle Obama’s 2010 efforts to refurbish the school lunch tray with a nutritious meal rather than an assorted array of bulk food bargains chock full of additives and preservatives, politicians are still trying to stretch the definition of vegetable and stymie her laudable endeavors. But pizza?! Come on. That’s not to say that pizza doesn’t have a well-earned place on the plate, but it should be disqualified as a vegetable on several grounds, including saturated fat content, the fact that there’s no such thing as a pizza plant or tree, and that no kid has ever refused to eat it. (Unless it’s topped with veggies.) Oh yeah, and there’s also the fact that if its tomato component is what supposedly qualifies it as a vegetable, well, tomato is a fruit. Maybe lobbyists should be trying to classify pizza as a fruit?

Though TNCS students are especially fortunate to have Chef Emma’s Garden Tuck Shop program, things are actually looking up for school lunches at the national level, too, with Farm-to-School and Fresh Fruit and Vegetable initiatives by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service because obesity and associated chronic illness rates are making the necessity of good nutrition impossible to ignore.

Scientists have known for several years that consuming foods high in antioxidants—that is, fruits and vegetables—neutralizes the damaging effects of free radicals at the cellular level and even promotes neurogenesis in aging brains (see “Nutrition and Brain Function”). The darker the fruit (think blueberries), the more synapses sprouted! What about for kids? Few studies exist on nutrition in the post infancy period of healthy kids, but they show that healthy eating promotes healthy functioning of all the organ systems, including the central nervous system, and wards off chronic illness. Micronutrients including iodine, iron, folate, zinc, vitamin B12, and omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids are all important for brain development in school-age children, and many such micronutrients rely on the interactions with other foods for absorption such as zinc and vitamin A. In other words, getting them from a balanced diet yields far superior benefits in verbal learning and memory than what can be derived from dietary supplements. It’s also true that better health fosters better performance in school, according to many studies. Taken together, good nutrition –> health –> cognitive function.

And Chef Emma was right that it all goes hand in hand: a recent Canadian study shows that young kids who cook or participate in the kitchen tend to independently choose healthier foods than do their non-cooking counterparts. Eating healthy at school reverberates at home and wherever your kids are faced with food choices. It’s an easy win.

11 thoughts on “Sustainable School Lunch: Garden Tuck Shop Program Part 2

  1. Apologies for the length, but this subject is surely rich and critical enough to merit the longer post!

  2. Brilliant stuff, Emma is to be commended she is doing a fantastic job

  3. Didn’t California just forfeit the chance to require that GM foods be labeled? I can’t believe that law didn’t pass. Politics and economics aside, no one knows what the long-term effects of GMOs are! Pink slime anyone?

    • The GMO thing frightens and sickens me beyond belief BUT we can all still do our part here by boycotting companies like Morning Star Farm, Boca, Nature Valley, and a whole slue of others that claim to be either “Natural, Organic, or Vegetarian.” Check out this article I found: Prop 37, the California Right to Know GMO labeling initiative, was narrowly defeated last week thanks to a relentless, deceitful $46-million advertising blitz. Among the largest bankrollers of the NO on 37 campaign were huge multinational food and beverage companies whose subsidiaries make billions selling some of your favorite organic and “natural” brands.

      Brands like Kashi. Honest Tea. Naked Juice. Muir Glen, Horizon, Silk, and Morningstar Farms.

      It’s time to boycott the companies and brands whose dirty money confused and scared millions of California voters into voting No on Prop 37. It’s time to plaster their facebook pages with this message: We won’t support you until you support us. It’s time to call their consumer hotlines, complain to the store managers where you buy your organic and natural products. It’s time to tarnish their holy organic and natural images, to expose their hypocrisy and greed.

      • I’m starting my boycott today as I have been a long time consumer of Morningstar Farm, Kashi, and Silk! I can’t believe these companies actually DONATED money to allow the GMO labeling to not get passed! 🙁

  4. This is good to know, and I never would have guessed :(. Goodbye Kashi bars . . . I feel so betrayed!

  5. Just noticed on our Silk brand Almond Milk that it does say “Silk beverages are made without genetically modified ingredients, for your health and for the planet’s.” It also says “NON GMO project VERIFIED. Good to know, and it provides a link SO, maybe you don’t have to boycott your Kashi bars just yet Kelly~check the label:)

  6. So, let me get this straight….
    The kitchen-garden program is not an organic operation? Does this mean you still used pesticides, artificial fertilizers, and/or genetically modified seeds to plant and grow the food?
    I’m asking because I’m a college student, studying organic agriculture at Maharishi University of Management. My specific field of emphasis is applied soil ecology. I stumbled on the school’s website accidentally, but saw the kitchen-garden link and thought “Oh, cool! Another school that grows it’s own food!”
    But if we aren’t keeping pesticides out of our children’s diets… then what are we doing?

    • Thanks for a great question, Michael! Chef Emma does not use pesticides in the greenhouse—she believes wholeheartedly in natural solutions. What she was saying is that she is not decreeing that everyone start buying only organic foods at the grocery store if the carbon footprint left by the amount of energy taken to get the food to the store is bigger than the benefit of eating organic food. In other words, she is asking us to weigh the cost/benefit ratio and decide accordingly.

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