What began as a simple idea in the winter of 2014 culminated as a celebratory reality on June 5, 2015 when more than 40 elementary school children in Longview, Washington, graduated from a new healthy foods program at Olympic Elementary School.
The program, called “Edible Olympic,” is designed to teach kids how to grow and cook healthy food and then to prepare it at home with their families. Organizers initially estimated that maybe a handful of elementary students might be interested. But after the introductory letter was sent home, students came out in droves to learn about and register for the 5-week course of gardening and cooking after-school sessions.
The program organizers included volunteers from the local Kaiser Permanente Oncology department (including 3 newly certified plant-based chefs), nonprofit Lower Columbia School Gardens, and high school students. A small but enthusiastic Parent Teacher Organization supported the program with some initial funding.
Sprouting new food skills
Olympic Elementary School serves one of the less economically stable areas of town. Ninety percent of students receive free or reduced lunch assistance. Some regularly experience food insecurity. Most kids were used to processed or fast foods.
Students began by planting seeds and learning cooking skills such as food safety and how to properly use a knife. They learned to make simple, fresh green and cabbage salads. Inspired by a classmate named Kael, they planted kale and enjoyed a warm kale salad – a first for many students! Later classes included mac n’ broc n’ cheese, roasted “rainbow wraps” with ranch dressing (made from scratch), gypsy soup and homemade pizza (dough, sauce and toppings all from scratch).
The kids went from “deer in headlights” looks on their faces when given real knives, to competent choppers, dicers and slicers. They prepared the meals in an underused middle school Home Economics kitchen, assisted by the enthusiastic volunteers. They ate the food together, sitting at a table, talking and laughing. And they went home with bags of groceries, recipes and assignments to prepare the same meal for their families at home.
Garden time included preparing the soil, spreading bark chips, spreading soil, creating the design, planting, tending and harvesting.
Each session had a mix of 3rd, 4th and 5th graders. The second session included younger students, so high achievers from the first session were asked back to mentor. Some had never been recognized for doing something good that then led to additional responsibility. This was an unintended effect that proved to offer an even richer experience.
The Edible Olympic learning sessions came to a finale with a celebratory feast prepared by the students and served to their families. The school cafeteria was festooned with tablecloths, cloth napkins, real plates, silverware and glasses and decorated with massive flower arrangements harvested from the garden.
The meal consisted of fresh green salad from the garden with vinaigrette, warm cashew kale, mac n’ broc n’ cheese, garlic bread and strawberry shortcake. Healthy food, grown and prepared with love, was shared with family and friends and everyone enjoyed the bounty of what had been learned and cultivated.
Recipes, photos and more information can be found on the Edible Olympic Facebook page.
Special thanks to Michael Bixby, 4th grade teacher at Olympic Elementary School, Longview, Wash., for his contributions to this article.