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!


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!

New Year’s Resolutions TNCS Style

Keeping New Year’s resolutions is notoriously difficult. Some experts advise against making any at all due to the consequent self-loathing that can envelope us once we realize we have failed epically! A new study claims that only 8% of those who make New Year’s resolutions keep them, and those who don’t give up after just 1 week. On the flip side, however, “People who explicitly make resolutions are 10 times more likely to attain their goals than people who don’t explicitly make resolutions.” So do we or don’t we make resolutions?!

We absolutely should (we’re actually hardwired to) . . . but with two key differences. Part of the key is not putting so much emphasis on target dates. Without room to slip, fall, and pick yourself back up, a resolution becomes one of those all-or-nothing pipe dreams with a built-in escape hatch—“I just couldn’t do it. Maybe next year.” Failure and recovery is an inherent part of any worthwhile process, so be realistic about that and don’t let slip-ups completely derail you. “Fail better.” The other difference is in setting small, specific goals instead of grand, sweeping changes. Abstractions such as “lose weight” or “stop smoking” are doomed without a plan in place that provides incremental and achievable daily steps. Ultimately, those small steps will yield the desired result.

Thus, the list below comprises a manageable, realistic, yet worthy set of goals that are universally beneficial. Even better, methods to accomplish each individual goal are also given, taking all of the guesswork out of making 2014 a healthy, happy year!

1. Eat a healthier diet, full of fresh vegetables and fruit: Join One Straw Farm CSA (even if it isn’t a stated goal, you’ll likely drop some pounds in the bargain).

The available bounty ranges from onions, peppers, lettuces, chard, kale, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, etc. to herbs—rosemary, oregano, thyme, chives, cilantro, parsley, etc.—and fruit, such as raspberries, strawberries, watermelon, and gorgeous varieties of heirloom tomatoes. . . Starting in June and running through November, on a set day of the week, “shareholders” get 8 pieces of 3–6 items, primarily vegetables . . . for about $24 per week.

2. Read more: Spend 20 minutes reading with your kids before bedtime (as well as curl up with your own reading material before lights-out). The benefits are varied and far-reaching . . . and what better way to close out the day?

[A study shows] that math and reading ability at age 7 years are linked with socioeconomic status (SES) in adulthood. Interestingly, although math and reading ability was also significantly associated with intelligence scores, academic motivation, and education duration, the association with later SES was independent of the family’s SES during childhood. Moreover, the researchers were not expecting to find that specifically math and reading ability were more important than general intelligence in determining SES. In other words, what we’re born with and what we’re born into may not be as important as what we learn in second grade. [The] findings emphasize the importance of learned skills. What this boils down to is really good news for students—the return on improving these skills at all levels is huge, from remedial to the most gifted. “Math and reading are two of the most intervention-friendly topics,” [researchers] say. “Practice improves nearly all children.”

3. Hone math skills: Spend 15 minutes playing math games with the kids before bedtime (like the TNCS Facebook page for games you can play at home to dovetail with Ms. Roberts’s work in class). You may be surprised at how these simple exercises improve your own day-to-day efficiency and obviate that smartphone calculator!

STEM is all over the media, and with good reason. STEM subjects are inherently investigative in nature, cultivating self-guided exploration and producing a greater understanding of the physical world. Ms. Roberts says, “STEM is important for everyday life; for example, we use math at the grocery store and at the bank. And science explains how the world works.” Another appeal of early STEM learning is the downstream payoff. Recently, NPR did a Planet Money story about what job fields yield the highest incomes. In “The Most (And Least) Lucrative College Majors, In 1 Graph,” STEM came out almost scarily far ahead (that discrepancy is another story). The focus of other media coverage is the nation’s big move to catch up to other developed countries, whom the United States currently lags far behind in depth and breadth of STEM education.

4. Get more sleep: Impose a consistent bedtime (for kids’ and parents’ improved overall health).

“Sleep is no less important than food, drink, or safety in the lives of children.” And yet, with our busy lives and comings and goings, we can inadvertently contribute to sleep deprivation in our kids. “With parents working long hours, schedules packed with school, after-school activities, and other lifestyle factors, naps are missed, bedtimes are pushed back, mornings start earlier and nights may be anything but peaceful. Missing naps or going to bed a little late may not seem like a big deal, but it is. It all adds up, with consequences that may last a lifetime.”

5. Be more altruistic: Donate to local and international charities through TNCS’s food, clothing, and dime drives.

Howsoever you decide to share your wealth, remember that you will actually derive personal benefit from your selflessness—a beautiful paradox! Being altruistic is a  recognized happiness inducer!

6. Be more environmentally conscious: Join Clean Currents (bonus—you’ll actually save money on your power bill).

The most obvious benefit to wind energy is its environmental friendliness. “Windustry” ameliorates climate change by not only providing a non-polluting source of energy but also by displacing the greenhouse gas emissions that have already polluted the atmosphere from conventional power. But there are other tremendous advantages, too. By reducing our dependence on fossil fuels, for instance, clean energy also makes us less vulnerable as a nation to the vagaries of the international oil market . . . and to the associated security risks. Moreover, ever-renewable wind is a cash cow for farmers. Wind farming almost effortlessly generates considerable income without taking up land needed for crops as well as creating jobs and boosting the economy.

7. Learn a foreign language: Practice Words of the Week with the kids, and read the monthly classroom newsletters. Words of the Week are posted each Monday on both The New Century School website (during active school semesters) and on TNCS’s Facebook page (with pronunciations). Stay tuned for a blog post this month dedicated to other ways you can learn Mandarin and Spanish along with your kids at home!

8. Get more exercise: Take a class at Sanctuary Bodyworks while the kids are downstairs at The Lingo Leap. People who exercise are not only in better physical shape, they are also more cognitively and emotionally fit.

Exercise dramatically enhances circulation to the brain and encourages synaptic growth, thereby priming the brain for improved function—providing the “spark,” in other words. Improvements in function include both mental health as well as cognitive ability.

9. Make mornings less stressful:  Sign up the kids for the Garden Tuck Shop lunch program. As if you don’t have enough to do in the mornings—why not let somebody else provide your child with a wholesome, nutrition-packed homemade hot lunch? Even better many ingredients come from TNCS’s on-premise greenhouse, and all others are locally sourced.

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.

10. Volunteer!: Complete your volunteer hours. Another way to connect with your community is to give something back to it.

Volunteering at TNCS is not a burden; it’s a pleasure—no, an opportunity, a gift even. It’s a chance to be deeply involved in your children’s day-to-day school lives, to connect with them on their turf, and to see and experience what’s going on in their lives from their points of view, all while providing a service to the school. There’s nothing so reassuring in parenting than to get proof that your child is happy and flourishing even when you aren’t there.

So go ahead—pick one (or several) and reap the fruits of your labor. Just don’t get discouraged by bumps in the road. We’ve got all year!

Bagging Bagged Lettuce

The perils of bagged lettuce have been all over the media this year; in 2012, a debate raged on whether to rewash or not to rewash bagged lettuce. Now, some recent NPR coverage has brought this issue back to the forefront. So with lettuce season upon us, this seems like a good time to show some gratitude for the fresh produce that The New Century School community has access to, both from One Straw Farm’s CSA for families at home and from Chef Emma Novashinki’s Garden Tuck Shop Program for school lunch. “Lettuce rejoice!”

Salad washed & ready to eat . . . 2 weeks ago!

Salad washed & ready to eat . . . 2 weeks ago!

You might be thinking, “Pshaw. Prepackaged lettuce is so convenient—it’s already washed and ready to go! I have a full time job, already!” But if you’ve ever opened that Mixed Herb Salad with a use-by date several days in the future only to be choked by the smell of decomposing greenstuff, then you know that those bagged or boxed greens were actually harvested a good 2 weeks or more prior to your purchase. The waste of money aside, rotting lettuce tastes terrible and robs you of the significant health benefits you’d be reaping from fresh produce. So, really, what’s the point? The would-be convenience is negated by the glaring disadvantages. And, if you bother returning your rotten package to the grocery store, you haven’t even actually saved any time by not having to wash your lettuce yourself. However, the real shocker is, the triple-washing that prepackaged lettuce companies conscientiously implemented (to their credit) after the 2006 Escherichia coli outbreak probably doesn’t remove those intractable pathogens trapped just below the leaf’s surface that can make us really sick. Then there are the pesticides in nonorganic varieties. Although triple-washing probably removes the majority of chemicals, considering that lettuce is one of the most chemical-intensive crops, there’s likely some residue left behind (your chances of achieving cleaner lettuce are better at home, leaf by closely scrutinized leaf). To boot, triple-washing is enormously costly and a considerable drain on already scarce water resources in the nation’s biggest lettuce-producing areas like southern California.

Cleaner, healthier, tastier---no contest.

Cleaner, healthier, tastier—no contest.

Let’s get back to the health benefits of fresh lettuce. Buying a head whole and washing and prepping it yourself at home halts the nutrient-loss process. Turns out, lettuce and spinach are among those superfoods we should all be consuming in vast quantities but that almost immediately on picking begin to lose antioxidant content. According to Eating on the Wild Side: The Missing Link to Optimum Health author Jo Robinson, they should be on your refrigerator’s “Eat Me First” list. Moreover, doing the prep work yourself actually makes your lettuce healthier! “If you take your lettuce right from the store and rinse it and dry it and then, if you rip it into bite-sized pieces before you store it, you’re going to increase the antioxidant activity … fourfold. The next time you eat it, it’s going to have four times as many antioxidants.” Ms. Robinson recently appeared on Fresh Air; read more of the transcript here.

So, thank you, thank you, thank you TNCS for providing access to fresh, local produce both in school and at home. Now where did that darn salad spinner get to?

Unrelated, but definitely summery!

Unrelated, but definitely summery!

Check out this clever (okay strange) way to preserve fresh greens longer here.

Meet Dave, the friendly Bag O’Lettuce frog here (not joking).

Community-supported Agriculture and TNCS

The New Century School families recently got an email from Chef Emma Novashinski, detailing a CSA (community-supported agriculture) share program offered by One Straw Farm in Whitehall, MD. This is TNCS’s second year participating in the CSA; Chef Novashinski is hoping to garner enough support to make TNCS a drop-off point again in 2013. TNCS needs a total of 10 shares to be a drop-off location, and One Straw Farm throws in a bonus share for the school to use if we make that number. Chef Novashinski relies on locally sourced produce in her school lunch program, so the extra share would go right into TNCS students’ tummies! Visit her Garden Tuck Shop facebook page to see a gallery of her marvelous lunches.

Why CSA? 

For readers unfamiliar with what CSA is and how it works, Wikipedia defines it as, “an alternative, locally-based economic model of agriculture and food distribution . . . CSA members or subscribers pay at the onset of the growing season for a share of the anticipated harvest; once harvesting begins, they receive weekly shares of vegetables and fruit [etc.] . . .” Or, as the very funny and very quotable Joan Norman (co-owner of One Straw Farm with husband Drew) boils it down, “You give me money, and I give you food.” Paying for this food subscription service up front tells the farmer how much to plant, thereby reducing waste and keeping the farm solvent. The customers save money and eat more “vegetables, glorious vegetables” than they otherwise might. Everybody wins.

And then there’s the contrast between most grocery store produce and locally sourced produce. Consider that produce grown in California might get picked on a Monday, crosses the country and lands in the supermarket Friday, gets put behind the older goods already on the shelf Saturday, and is eventually purchased by you the following Monday or so. By the time it reaches your refrigerator, the two qualities we look for in food have been degraded dramatically—the taste and the nutritive content. All of which begs the question, why are we eating this??? CSA, on the other hand, is as fresh as you’re going to get (unless you’re growing it yourself), with flavor and nutrients at their peaks.

Chef Novashinski adds a couple more dimensions to this issue. She strongly believes that what is growing in your particular environment is what is best for you to eat. So, if it’s rhubarb and asparagus being harvested in central Maryland now, that’s what central Marylanders should be eating. Leave the corn and tomatoes for summer, when they’re in season here. She is also personally a shareholder. “I like it,” she says, “because I already eat local food, but this way I get my Saturdays back. I don’t have to go to the Farmer’s Market, I can go to the pool. They’ve picked the best stuff for me.” Very practical!

Why One Straw Farm?

One Straw Farm

One Straw Farm

Located on 350 gently rolling acres near the Maryland/Pennsylvania border, One Straw Farm is Food Alliance certified since 2010, meaning that they adhere to sustainability standards and guarantee food integrity (i.e., no genetically  engineered or artificial ingredients) and is the largest such vegetable farm in Maryland. They boast some prestigious customers, too, on the basis of these important principles. Popular farm-to-table Baltimore restaurant Woodberry Kitchen is one, and the relationship seems to be working out quite well for them. (In fact, it was announced this month that chef and owner Spike Gjerde is the only Baltimore chef to become a 2013 James Beard Award Finalist. The winner, chosen from an elite pantheon of only five mid-atlantic chefs, will be announced May 6th. Go Spike!)

Says Joan Norman: “If you learn nothing else, know where your food comes from. I’m liable to the people who buy my food. I will grow you the safest food I can.”

The Deets on the Beets

The available bounty ranges from onions, peppers, lettuces, chard, kale, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, etc. to herbs—rosemary, oregano, thyme, chives, cilantro, parsley, etc.—and fruit, such as raspberries, strawberries, watermelon, and gorgeous varieties of heirloom tomatoes.

Greenhouse veg

These vegetables are started in the greenhouse and transplanted to the fields 6–8 weeks later.

Starting in June and running through November, on a set day of the week, “shareholders” get 8 pieces of 3–6 items, primarily vegetables (for example, 1 head of lettuce, 3 cucumbers, 1 watermelon, a bunch of herbs, and maybe a few tomatoes). This year we get an extra week, totaling 25 weeks of locally, sustainably grown produce. The cost is $600 (remember to sign up early next year to receive a discount), which is only $24 per week. CSA makes eating right so easy; click here for a chart of what’s harvested when.

Becoming a Shareholder

If you’re like many of us, you might be wondering how you could manage a weekly share in your household. Common questions are: What if I don’t like what I get? Can I possibly eat all that produce each week? After thinking hard about purchasing a share myself, this writer just had to see the farm and learn about CSA from those experienced in this business. So, a day after Baltimore’s surprise Spring snowstorm, I drove up to One Straw Farm to meet Joan and Drew as well as my future food. Joan drove me around in a four-wheeler and showed me everything, “from the ground up,” as it were. It was amazing. We munched red leaf lettuce growing right at our feet, smelled handfuls of rich black compost (surprisingly pleasant!), and talked farming. We were often accompanied by Easy, one of the Normans’ Labrador Retrievers, whose favorite toy is a bucket. Easy and bucket must come in very handy at harvest time.

I learned that unbeknownst to the Normans when they bought the farm back in 1983, the land had once belonged to Drew’s great-grandfather. Talk about serendipity! I learned that the name One Straw Farm derives from the book One Straw Revolution, a manifesto that unites the practice of sustainability with the philosophy of common sense by a Japanese scientist-turned-farmer. I also learned that the 75–80 acres of food crops are lovingly hand-tilled at least once each year. Their full-time crew consists of between 20 and 25 people, most of whom are more like family than employees. But the, uh, “meat” of the conversation was veggies. “I love growing food for people,” says Joan. “I love helping kids eat vegetables and giving them that advantage.”

Tricks of the Trade

Both Joan Norman and Chef Novashinski also have plenty of helpful tips for how to use your share. There are lots of creative recipes on the One Straw Farm website, for example, for dishes like Kale Enchiladas (the kale is the wrapper—ingenious!). Chef Novashinski also encourages getting creative when you find yourself with leftover produce. You can add a little sugar and vinegar to almost anything and make jams, jellies, chutneys, or piccalillies, she says. “Instead of wasting it, experiment with it—what have you got to lose?” Other suggestions are to make juices and to “share your share”: give food gifts to your friends and family. The bottom line is, she says, “access to organic, home-cooked food is better for us.”

TNCS needs just four more sign-ups to qualify as a drop-off site. Sign up for your share here (make sure to mention that you’re associated with TNCS) or email Chef Novashinski.