Rob Harbison, executive chef of campus dining at Princeton University, will be serving Swiss chard to all Princeton Public Schools elementary students this fall as part of the Garden State on Your Plate program. (Photo by Karla Cook.)
Fran McManus is a founder of the Princeton School Gardens Cooperative and runs the Garden State on Your Plate program.
Dorothy Mullen, a founder of the Princeton School Gardens Cooperative, harvests fresh herbs from her home garden. Mullen helped to start the first school garden at Riverside Elementary School.

By Michele Alperin

Princeton School Gardens program set to be honored at Oct. 30 YMCA event

Who hasn’t seen children scrunching up their faces at the sight of an unknown food and digging in their heels with a noisy “Yuck.” It could be a radish, a piece of kale, a mushroom — produce that the child has never touched, tasted, or smelled but has now fallen off the child’s list of potential nourishment.

At the same time these children may be hazy about where vegetables come from — a package, a grocery store, the freezer?

The Princeton School Garden Cooperative’s Garden State on Your Plate (GSOYP) program is working to try to change the relationship between Princeton children and fresh produce by bringing local produce and chefs into the schools and serve them lunch using these healthy ingredients.

On Oct. 30, the GSOYP program is being recognized for its efforts by the Princeton YMCA at its 2014 Centennial Awards: For Healthy Living event. (See story on page 11). Also being honored for their efforts to promote healthy living are Christoph Hunt, internist at University Medical Center at Princeton; Dorothy Mullen, founder of the Suppers Programs; Dr. Elliott Sigal, past executive vice president, chief scientific officer and president of research and development at Bristol-Myers Squibb; and Tracy Sipprelle, founder of Bee Fit with Tracy and Make a Child Smile.

GSOYP is an offshoot of the Princeton School Gardens Cooperative, which began life as an edible garden program at Riverside Elementary School. The edible garden became a model and eventually spread to other schools in town. The Garden Cooperative was officially founded in 2006 by Mullen, Karla Cook, Diane Landis, and Fran McManus.

“We got together to talk about the need to have some sort of overarching entity that could help ensure continuity in the school gardens,” said McManus, explaining that gung-ho parents often lose interest when their children leave the school.

So they talked about how they might help the school gardens continue to thrive and also facilitate communications among the garden groups at the different schools. “The coop doesn’t maintain gardens — it facilitates, gets funding, and facilitates meetings between the gardens,” said McManus.

Each garden has its own way of maintaining itself. Some donate to the Crisis Ministry. Some have parents sign for a week in the summer and get to harvest what they need. During the school year, the gardens are used for lessons: kids can taste from them and sometimes the produce is used for cooking demos.

“They aren’t really set up as a source of food for the cafeteria, but produce enough to have, say, a pesto tasting with a group of kids,” McManus said.

To strengthen GSOYP’s farm to table concept, they sought and won a grant from Robert Wood Johnson Foundation for a pilot project to bring chefs and farmers to Littlebrook and Community Park Elementary schools to do palate education and help children understand where food comes from.

The chefs were asked to do some sort of exercise to help the kids understand that they have the capacity to change the taste of something they eat, by seasoning it or cooking it. The chef might also talk about being a chef, why he or she liked to work with local farmers, and then would produce items for the kids to taste.

That first year a chef asked the kids to take a bite of a grape tomato, to think about how it tastes, then to add salt and lime and notice how the taste had changed. Then the kids tasted fresh tomato salsa he had brought along.

“The idea is to put them in an analytical frame of mind, so they’re not focused on the request to eat raw beets or chard,” MccManus said. “It is more, the chef giving them an exercise and wanting to know what they think. We want them to know they have the power to make food taste the way they want it to taste and that children appreciate the idea that their palate is their palate.”

They need to learn to be specific about what they like and dislike in foods, she said. For example, rather than saying “I hate beets,” they should be able to say, “I don’t like raw or cooked beets, but I do like beet soup.”

One of the chefs who is enthusiastically involved in the program is Princeton University’s executive chef, Robert Harbison. The way it works is that he and a local farmer select a food item. “Then the farmer and I go to schools to do a lesson plan wrapped up in the disguise of a food tasting,” he said.

Chef Rob has, for example, done a lesson on pea tendrils with Farmer Bruce Cobb of Arc Greenhouses in Shiloh. The farmer talked about how the twirly vegetable grows and the chef about how nutritionally dense it is — a veritable power food.

But it isn’t always easy to convince the kids to have a taste. “The pea tendrils — the kids turned their noses up at them,” said Harbison. “It was weird looking; and sweet and grassy.”

Sometimes for kids who tell him, “I don’t eat anything green — never have, never will,” he will ask them to try it in the interest of science — and sometimes that works.

The lessons are integrated with other learning: science classes may sprout peas, art classes capture the twirly nature of the tendrils, and vocabulary charts provided by GSOYP to help the children describe their new taste experiences — color, flavor, aroma, and texture — develop their language skills. They also sent home a handout about the chef, the farmer, the food tasted, facts, a recipe and questions to stimulate conversation at the dinner table.

In the lesson using cranberries from Paradise Hill Farm in South Jersey, the farmer explained that cranberries are hand grown, not produced on a huge mechanized farm. “It was neat to have them talk about the process of growing cranberries and the bog,” said Harbison.

When the time came for the tasting, Harbison did it in three different ways: raw, cooked down, and finally sorbet made by the Bent Spoon from his cranberry compote.

“Fran (McManus) and Karla (Cook) really want it to be an experiment to the kids,” said Harbison. “The lesson is — you have to know where your food is coming from.”

And when kids discover the source, said Harbison, “they are amazed to find out that things they thought were so mystical and from foreign lands were actually grown in their neighborhood.”

Generally the chef tries to give the selected food to the students in as many ways as they can in the short amount of time they have allotted — basically 10 minutes, 5 taken from lunch and 5 from recess. First, the students try it raw and often find it tastes pretty good. Not with leeks, though, which have an astringent taste and sent kids running to the garbage to try to spit it out, said Harbison.

The chefs do very basic cooking preps. With leeks, for example, Harbison did both caramelized and fried. “The caramelized leeks they thought was candy,” he said, noting that he made leek lollypops for kids who had participated well and were good helpers. He added sugar and water to the pan, reduced it to mostly sugar, garnished it with a leek, and stuck in a lollypop stick.”

Harbison was a little daunted and intimidated before his first appearance, but really enjoyed himself. “The first time you do it you realize this is really cool; you get a kid who never ate cranberries before who will eat it all the time,” said Harbison. “On my next visit, he said, ‘My mom buys fresh cranberries all the time and uses your recipe.’”

The principal of Littlebrook, Annie Kosek, has been to all the tastings. “One thing she really liked about this,” said McManus, “was the fact that the entire school was experiencing the same thing on the same day.”

This year Princeton University provided the Princeton School Gardens Cooperative with a $12,000 grant to expand GSOYP in all four elementary schools. The program has also gotten other funding to take the same concept to the Princeton Young Achievers program, which meets at three Princeton locations.

“We are demonstrating that children are willing to eat a wide range of fruits and vegetables,” said McManus.

It also works for adults too. During one demonstration, an administrator at Community Park elementary school had an epiphany about a lifelong aversion — beets, said McManus. She came up to the table, and when asked to taste a beet, she said, “I don’t like beets; I don’t like them, and I have never liked them.” But she did taste them, and then said: “Why did I think I didn’t like beets?” Answer: “You probably had canned beets as a child.”

“That,” said McManus, “is why we have food prepared by a chef and from a local farm.”

School is a good place for a program like this, said McManus. The kids are already in a learning frame of mind. It’s not a situation where their parents are telling them what to do, or in this case, what to eat. “It’s a good opportunity to expose children to something new and have a good shot at it being successful,” she said. “We have kids who won’t try something, but are surrounded by peers who are. It is interesting to hear kids pressuring other kids at the table.”

In the 2014 to 2015 school year, there will be four tastings per elementary school. In October, chefs from Princeton University will be serving chard with Jess Niederer from Chickadee Creek Farm; in November, Terry Strong from Mediterra is doing mushrooms from Shibumi Farms; in April, Chris Grassiano from Witherspoon Grill will share asparagus from Terhune Orchards; and in May, Josh Thompson of Agricola will serve up radishes from Great Road Farm.

This year GSOYP is also taking its tastings out into the community: Bent Spoon will be offering chard ice cream, Kim Rizk of Jammin’ Crepes a chard crepe, Mediterra a chard dish, and the Terra Learning Kitchen at the YMCA will incorporate chard into its cooking class.

And there’s more: Maria Evans at the Arts Council of Princeton is cutting out of Masonite big chard leaves that will be painted and put up around Princeton; Small World will have a bulletin board and an old coffee canister planted with chard; Jazam’s will have a wheelbarrow planted with chard.

They are also taking fun pictures of different business and community leaders — Gabby Carbone at Bent Spoon using chard as a scoop to eat ice cream and Shannon Connor of Indigo on Palmer Square arranging chard in a vase. Starting Oct. 1, they will be releasing the photos on Instagram and other social media. “It’s like Princeton Reads, but not a book — a vegetable,” McManus said.

The difference the GSOYP program has made in children is impressive. At the beginning of the program, Harbison said, if you asked them in the classroom where broccoli was from, they might say, “From the farm” or “From the field.” But put them in the cafeteria and ask them, and they would say, “From the freezer” or “From the pot over there.” Harbison explains, “They don’t make that connection while eating; but after doing it a few times, the kids get it—my food doesn’t come from the freezer; it comes from someone who does it with their own hands.”