TNCS School Lunch Program Gets a Refresh!

You may have noticed that The New Century School has been cooking up some fun changes for the 2017–2018 school year. One such change is happening in the the kitchen, where two new faces have appeared. With former chef Emma Novashinski* moving on to embark on a new professional chapter, TNCS school lunch has been taken over by veteran TNCS parents Danielle and John Moomau. Kibnesh Anebo, who assisted Chef Emma, now takes on the role of Lead Cook. (Click Garden Tuck Shop and Lunch Goes Global to read about the origins of TNCS school lunch.)

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Team School Lunch: Danielle, left; Kibnesh, middle; John, right.

Their kitchen takeover came to pass over the summer, when TNCS Co-Executive Director and Co-Founder Roberta Faux asked the Moomaus to consider assuming the role of kitchen manager. “At first we thought it would be impossible,” said Mrs. Moomau. “Considering that we operate our own full time food safety training and consulting business, how could we do the job of Chef Emma?” In fact, their proposed role would take a different shape. “Kitchen manager includes creating menus, overseeing production, maintaining regulatory compliance, food safety, inventory, and ordering,” she explained. With Ms. Anebo as Lead Cook and an additional new hire to assist with prep and clean-up coming on board, they realized they could manage. “And the idea of being able to engage more with our daughter, connecting with her classmates, all the teachers, administration, and other parents was appealing as well,” said Mrs. Moomau.

Wth a combined experience of over 50 years in retail food management, the Moomaus were a natural choice. “John and I both put ourselves through college working in the restaurant industry, working every position in the restaurant from dishwasher to bartender, and later working nationally doing multi-unit openings, culinary training, and finally regional operations.” They even met while working in the food-service industry. Mrs. Moomau is originally from New Orleans, and Mr. Moomau is from Silver Spring, MD, but they co-managed a restaurant in Washington, D.C. located at 14th NW and F Streets in 2003.

Then, in 2006, they left the corporate industry to start QRS Training, their own food consulting and training company, which offers classes and certification programs for food and alcohol licenses in the Mid-Atlantic region.

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Kibnesh prepares sesame noodles with faux chicken.

Now, 11 years later, they are bringing all of their expertise to TNCS students! The Moomaus are responsible for all food inventory and ordering of any supplies needed to run a smooth kitchen. They will oversee daily quantity of lunches needed and turn over the production line to head cook Ms. Anebo. Said Mrs. Moomau: “A local and clean path had been taken on by former TNCS Chef Emma and the founders of the school from the beginning when creating the lunch program. We seek to continue this and implement ways to influence the children with more international foods, but foods they will eat because it’s colorful, delicious, and fun.”

Although school lunch has a slightly new “flavor,” by far, most aspects of the program will stay the same. Mrs. Moomau explains:

Chef Emma started the school lunch with a different perspective. Understanding that she had to be compliant with the Maryland State Board of Education, which requires a protein, vegetable, fruit, and grain, she created menu’s that were colorful and different than what traditional school lunch programs offer. Keeping with TNCS’s promise to parents and students to be vegetarian and nut free, she researched and created lunches that offered children a new palette of flavors: soy nuggets that look and taste like chicken nuggets, colorful micro greens, and vegetables that the children planted and cultivated in TNCS’s own school garden. She got the kids excited and involved about the food they were eating. We wouldn’t change that piece of the program. Changes to the menu, however, will come as we get to know the children more and their likes and dislikes. But, whenever we introduce a new menu item, we promise to keep it delicious, healthy, fresh, and fun.

These menu adjustments have already started appearing in the form of food themes corresponding to each day of the week: American Mondays, Latin Tuesdays, Pasta Wednesdays, Asian Thursdays, and the already infamous and popular Pizza Fridays.They are trying new twists within these themes, too, such as avocado and cream cheese sushi rolls. “We don’t want to offer the children food that they don’t like, but we also want them to eat healthy, well-balanced, and low-sugar meals. So, we will continue to offer plenty of fruits and veggies that can be dipped into yogurts, hummus, guacamole. The children love to eat food with their hands, and dips are some of their favorites,” said Mrs. Moomau.

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Keepin’ It Clean and Green!

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Monica is making strawberry-blueberry parfaits.

Other ways that the Moomaus are ensuring continuity with the lunch program include continuing to order from food vendors who supply organic, fresh local produce, whenever possible; non-GMO ingredients; and no artificial coloring. “We’ve been establishing a clear expectation with our food providers that we want ‘clean and green’ food for our school,” they explained.

Of course, with any new venture, adaptations are inevitable. As before, one thing the new kitchen team wants to ensure is that the children they are feeding are eating. “We watch what goes into the trash everyday,” said Mrs. Moomau. “We approach the menu with the children’s perspective first. For example, today was ‘Asian Thursday’ and we offered Sesame Noodles, but our first thought was, the kids probably won’t favor rice noodles, so we’ll make the dish with an American twist and substitute whole-wheat, fat spaghetti noodles. It was a hit!”

Acclimating to the role might have been another challenge, but the Moomaus have found that support from the school administration has enabled them to surmount would-be obstacles:

Ms. Faux is so flexible and understanding that it makes the transitional period a lot less stressful. She has a solution for almost anything. When the founder of the school tells you, ‘don’t worry, if we absolutely have to, we can always order pizza,’ you know it’s going to go very well. And, although the first 3 weeks have had some bumps and learning curves, we’ve managed to get through without having to order pizza delivery!

They had this to say in closing: “We strive to do what’s right for our children and to make decisions that benefit their health.” And, let’s be honest, since kids like simple food and love to eat with their hands, dipping veggies in ranch or tortilla chips in guacamole or bean dip, for example, are not only kid favorites but are packed with vital nutrients.”

*Wondering how Chef Emma’s doing? She, too, has new adventures to share, and Immersed will keep you informed. Here’s a teaser: Emma’s Tea Spot will be opening in Hamilton soon . . .

TNCS’s Garden Tuck Shop Program Relaunches!

This wee one enjoys her lunch of pizza, tabouleh, and corn.

This wee one enjoys her lunch of pizza, tabouleh, and corn.

Now in its third year,  The New Century School‘s Garden Tuck Shop Lunch Program has implemented some exciting new changes, a new lunch menu foremost among them. These modifications grew out of some parent and TNCS staff feedback that Chef Emma Novashinski used to enhance and refine her already popular program. Menus and newsletters will also be part of this relaunch to ensure that communication about her meals is precise and detailed. “This is exciting,” she says, “it’s a nice turning point that has renewed my vigor to figure out which direction to take the program in.” She calls her refreshed program “the cleanest kids’ lunch downtown”! By “clean,” she refers to the source of the foods she serves. The closer to you it originates, the cleaner (healthier) it is. Trickling Springs Creamery in Chambersburg, PA provides local milk, produce and eggs come from nearby Tuscarora Farms, and fresh local bread comes daily from Cunningham’s Bakery in Towson.

Pilot Program

In mid-November, Chef Emma began piloting a series of new lunches that assembled components most popular with former and existing program participants. Popularity was not the only prerequisite, however. Chef Emma’s primary target for this new lunch series was to include food items “high in both protein and lysine to have the full plate components that the kids need for lunch.” As before, the lunches are vegetarian. L-lysine is an essential amino acid that—although it is necessary for every protein in our bodies—our bodies don’t produce, so it must be ingested. Both protein and L-lysine are critical for proper growth. Chef Emma says, “Protein and lysine content are big concerns for parents faced with a vegetarian school lunch. . . I have developed 13 perfectly balanced meals, which are appealing to tiny taste buds.”

A typical lunch includes an organic dairy item or two, fruits, veggies, a home-baked item, and multi-grain  bread.

A typical lunch includes an organic dairy item or two, fruits, veggies, a home-baked item, and multi-grain bread.

She used November and December to nail down her menu to be able to hit the ground running when school started back up this month. “I just kept honing, and honing, and honing it until the kids were getting a product they like,” she said. Having previously juggled a range of about 30 meals, she started thinking, why not pick 2 weeks’ worth of food and keep repeating those meals? She wants TNCS students to really embrace the Garden Tuck Shop program in all its facets, from enjoying the food to understanding its importance for their health. By using a regularly rotating system of meals, she would limit the unfamiliarity aspect that turns some kids off to a new food. “They might respond better to something that’s a bit more consistent,” she says. “Simplicity is better; you can put as much protein into a meal as you want, if they don’t eat it, it doesn’t really matter how protein-packed it is.”

The MyPlate poster hangs on the cafeteria wall to remind students that eating a balanced meal is necessary for optimum functioning and health!

The MyPlate poster hangs on the cafeteria wall to remind students that eating a balanced meal is necessary for optimum functioning and health!

Transitioning

During this 2-month transition phase, Chef Emma also made “personal appearances” in the classrooms to talk to the kids about their lunches. “Once I went round to the classroom to discuss color, texture, and taste and well as vitamins and nutrients and what they do for your body, even kids who hadn’t previously been eating very much had at least tried everything on the plate, and overall the results were really quite amazing.” To support the educational component, she posted MyPlate information around the cafeteria. “I want the kids to be able to tell me where the dairy is coming from on the plate, where the grains are,” she says. MyPlate is a visual reminder to kids to balance their meal with healthful choices and is endorsed by First Lady and healthy school lunch advocate Michelle Obama.

Also during the transition phase, Chef Emma received a lot of parent questions about some of the newly appearing menu items, particularly with desserts. She said she suddenly realized that what she does in the kitchen hasn’t always been quite clear to parents. “I cook from scratch every single day. The ‘cookie’ is homemade; the sandwich is homemade with homemade bread.” Concerns arose that kids participating in the program would come to expect dessert every day or, worse, eat only the dessert item. Says Chef Emma, “If the kids were going to eat anything, it was going to be dessert, so if I could hide vegetables and seeds in those baked goods, the kids are still getting proper nutrition. However, I just want to reassure everybody that during the transition, when we were trying to see how far we could go with certain salads, breads, and other baked items, that whenever you saw a cookie, a cupcake, or a slice of cake, it was enriched with hemp, chia, flax, sunflower seeds, or poppy seeds, because I know that there were concerns about having desserts on the menu.”

Each  component of this dessert is homemade, nutritious, and thoughtful.

Each component of this dessert is homemade, nutritious, and thoughtful.

She has arrived at a happy medium, she reports. Program participants get their main dish (e.g., pizza, faux chicken nuggets, tomato soup with cheesy toasts, etc.), which is consistently accompanied by sides such as tabouleh, cous cous, warm bean salad, or Waldorf salad as well as the CSA supplementary vegetables and plenty of fresh fruit. “The homemade muffin or granola bar is there only to get more dried fruit and seeds into the kids—not as a treat per se,” says Chef Emma.

Another change is that she now serves lunch in a basket to avoid using so many disposables. “Also, clean-up isn’t so bad and lunch is a bit more fun.” It’s certainly appetizing! Another advantage is that the basket helps kids know what to expect, which is, again, part of Chef’s overall strategy. “When confronted with something they don’t all know, if we repeat it every 2 weeks the year round,” she says, “eventually they’ll grow to like it.”

The repetition is ideal for young kids, but it also presents challenges to the menu creator. “If the foods aren’t locally available because of seasonal changes, I’m going to have to supplement with conventional foods. But I also add in whatever local ingredients are available to balance.” That rolls into her greenhouse curriculum as well. “I want to get more students gardening and cooking.” So, they harvest what’s available and pickle and preserve what they can for these “leaner” months in addition to keeping season-appropriate vegetables and herbs growing all year to supplement the Garden Tuck Shop program. “The plants in the greenhouse are indigenous and perennial, allowing the children to witness the changing of the seasons and to become familiar with the plants they can grow in their temperature zone. We have a fig tree, an olive tree, three grape vines, an asparagus patch, a strawberry patch, a rhubarb patch, blackberry and raspberry brambles, and two blueberry bushes!” They also seasonally plant root veggies like carrots and sweet potatoes, and lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers in spring. Herbs include rosemary, mint, lavender, marjoram, oregano, sage, thyme, and bay laurel leaf. (Parents are welcome to the fresh herbs!)

Her next step was to calculate the exact nutrient content (proteins, carbs, lysine, etc. down to the smallest mineral) of each meal, based on portion size. “I want kids to understand that food is fuel and that’s why nature gives us the food that it does at the time of the year that it does. It’s so we can remain balanced and feel good.”

Flavoring oil is just one way Chef Emma makes use of herbs and flowers growing in the greenhouse.

Flavoring oil is just one way Chef Emma makes use of herbs and flowers growing in the greenhouse.

“Cleanest Kids’ Lunch Downtown!”

In early January, she held a seminar for teachers to educate them about each plate, and at a coming TNCS Information Night or Potluck she will also present to parents. “The last couple of years with this program have taught me that it’s all down to communication,” she said. “Success is really about communication, and I don’t want that to fall to the wayside going forward.” We’ll also be learning about how the greenhouse factors in. Classes have been drying herbs and flowers to make potpourris, flavored oils, and bouquets garni, and body scrubs and other products may also soon be available.

About program participants Chef Emma says, “They’ve been superstars putting up with all of this experimentation, and I think we’ve really gotten to a marketable product.” Typical lunches are faux (soy) nuggets, edamame and corn, organic Greek yogurt, fruit, and milk; spinach and cheese tortellini or ravioli, leafy salad, apricot and banana muffin, fruit, and milk; or bagel with soy nut butter and jelly, celery, raisins, organic Greek yogurt, and milk. See much of the rotating roster of 13 complete lunches, each with a minimum of 24 g protein and 1,925 mg lysine, below. Click Menu: January 2014 to download.

January's menu features most of the 13 available meals. Looks delicious!

January’s menu features most of the 13 available meals. Looks delicious!

Haven’t signed your child up yet? Click here to register for the Garden Tuck Shop program at TNCS!

Like Garden Tuck Shop’s Facebook page to receive updates and photos of Chef Emma’s beautiful, delicious, and healthful lunches!

Composting and collecting rainwater are next on the horizon, possibly this spring!

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.

Sustainable School Lunch: Garden Tuck Shop Program Part I

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.

Emma poses with her late summer bounty

Master Gardener and Executive Chef Emma Novashinski in the TNCS greenhouse

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.

bright green peppers will soon be ready to harvest and become a school lunch component

Peppers growing in the greenhouse

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.

beautiful squash ripens and fills out right before our eyes

Greenhouse squash

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?

this tray features homemade pizza, zucchini, milk, and a wholesome dessert

Yes, this is a Garden Tuck Shop school lunch!

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.

students harvested these greenhouse tomatoes and put together a lovely salad for visiting parents

TNCS students made a Caprese-style salad from ingredients gathered during their daily greenhouse visit for parents to enjoy during the school workshops

 

. . . to be continued