Hungry Harvest Comes to TNCS!

Last month, The New Century School joined the Hungry Harvest family, a move that aligns with two very important TNCS values. The first is offering students clean, healthy food for lunch, the second, serving our larger community.

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In case you haven’t heard, Hungry Harvest is the phenomenal local company whose tagline, “Produce with a Purpose,” provides just an inkling of all that this force of social and environmental good really does. Not only do they obtain surplus produce and/or “recover” produce deemed not aesthetically pleasing enough to be sold in stores, which cuts down on food waste considerably, but they also donate 2 pounds of produce to help feed someone in need for every delivery they make. Moreover, they partner with local farms to obtain the “harvests” in another important synergy: The farms’ sustainable practices protect the environment, while being able to sell all of their viable produce (not just the visually perfect stuff) allows the farms to stay in business—and in an environmentally and socially conscious way.

Some Sad Facts

To put this in perspective, in many areas in the United States, but certainly here in Baltimore, which has the astronomic “food insecurity” rate of 23% of the population, we are faced with the tragic irony of wasting literally tons of food each year while people who could have eaten that food instead go hungry. Brace yourself. In July 2016, The Atlantic journalist Adam Chandler wrote:

Americans waste an unfathomable amount of food. In fact . . . roughly 50 percent of all produce in the United States is thrown away—some 60 million tons (or $160 billion) worth of produce annually, an amount constituting ‘one third of all foodstuffs.’ Wasted food is also the single biggest occupant in American landfills, the Environmental Protection Agency has found. . . the great American squandering of produce appears to be a cultural dynamic as well, enabled in large part by a national obsession with the aesthetic quality of food. Fruits and vegetables, in addition to generally being healthful, have a tendency to bruise, brown, wilt, oxidize, ding, or discolor and that is apparently something American shoppers will not abide. ‘Vast quantities of fresh produce grown in the U.S. are left in the field to rot, fed to livestock, or hauled directly from the field to landfill, because of unrealistic and unyielding cosmetic standards.’

(See more heartbreakingly unfortunate statistics on food waste here: https://www.usda.gov/oce/foodwaste/faqs.htm.)

unspecified-1TNCS Goes Hungry! (Harvesting, That Is.)

Fortunately, a very smart person recognized that these two problems could quite neatly solve each other. Quoting from the Hungry Harvest website, “Evan Lutz founded Hungry Harvest in the basement of his University of Maryland dorm room in 2014. He began by packing bags of produce himself and delivering to 30 customers. A few months later, Evan’s idea was validated on [the television show] ‘Shark Tank’ when he struck a deal with Robert Herjavec. Now the Hungry Harvest team is up to 11 and delivering across Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey.”

Thanks to Head of School Alicia Danyali and Executive Chef Emma Novashinski, TNCS is now part of that delivery route. Said Chef Emma: “Hungry Harvest reclaims food rejected during quality assurance, sells it to subscribers, and uses some of the profit to feed other hungry families. We wanted to be part of this wonderful initiative that uses one problem to solve another.”

Although combination boxes of fruits and veggies are available, TNCS sticks with just fruit through Hungry Harvest. As Chef Emma explained it, seasonal fruit is harder to obtain throughout the year from local suppliers, whereas, in this climate, vegetables of some variety are always growing. So, even if local fruit isn’t always available, such as during winter months, TNCS can get it from Hungry Harvest. And, by ordering only organic through Hungry Harvest, there’s still a nod to sustainable practices. This also allows TNCS to avoid resorting to so-called “conventional fruit,” meaning fruit that might be shipped from a remote region or grown in heavily chemical environments.

“Every Monday, we get four boxes of fruit variety delivered to us, which has allowed us to start serving fruit salads, which the kids are not only really enjoying, but they are also tasting fruits they might have been unfamiliar with, such as pomegranates or persimmons. And, if there’s a fruit in the salad they don’t care for, they can eat the other fruits around it and still get the vitamins and nutrients. Today we had mango, strawberry, and melon, for example.” Last year, Chef Emma more or less had to rotate apples and oranges through the winter months. This year, “we get a crossfade. They get to experience some new things—satsumas, mandarins, pineapples—and they get some old favorites like clementines,” she said. “They are getting more fruit this way, too, which can’t be bad. There’s no peel or pith—it’s already in bite-sized pieces for them.” (By the way, the persimmons were sweetened and cooked down then mixed with Greek yogurt in case you were wondering how on earth Chef Emma got the kids to eat them! Which they did!)

Choose-your-own-adventure options are available, but TNCS lets Hungry Harvest select what fruit will be delivered and provides guidelines for what works, such as no highly perishable items, so single items, etc.

Surely the question on everybody’s minds by now is, “So what about the quality?” In Chef Emma’s experience so far, the produce has been completely edible and delicious, rejected only for visual imperfections such as shape or markings. It’s not soft or mushy, as might be the misconception.

But wait—there are even more great benefits deriving from this partnership! In an online chat, Hungry Harvest Customer Experience Hero & Academic Coordinator Katie Landry explained:

Our school pickup sites operate a really unique program called Produce in a SNAP that allows families in need to use their SNAP/EBT (Food Stamps). We currently partner with Baltimore City Public and Charter schools to subsidize our produce and they can use SNAP/EBT at these sites! Learn more about these sites by following the link below.

Hungry for More?

If you are interested in signing up for a harvest for your family, visit https://shop.hungryharvest.net/summary.php?go=products to see the goods. It couldn’t be easier to do, and you’ll not only be making a social impact and contributing to environmental sustainability, you’ll also have your family’s fruits and veggies conveniently delivered to your door! The online signup experience is a breeze, and super-friendly company representatives like Katie are available to answer any questions in an instant. (And they address you as a hero, so that’s added fun :).)

Pro Tip: Typing “Emma Novashinski” in the referral box earns you a discount as well as one for TNCS! Go reap your harvest!

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!

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.

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.