There’s something to be said for getting back to one’s roots, literally. Howard County schoolchildren are being introduced, some for the first time, to where their food comes from. Not just its origins, but how good fresh food tastes, too.
Days of Taste, a national nonprofit connected with the American Institute of Wine and Food, teaches fourth-graders how food goes from the farm to the table and how eating fresh food can also help them feel good. Partnering with the Nutrition and Physical Activity Coalition in Howard County and local chefs, Days of Taste spends three hands¿on sessions with students where they discover how different foods taste, take a trip to a local farm to see how vegetables and fruits are grown, then prepare a salad and dressing. The program is volunteer run, from the coordinators to the parent volunteers and the guest chefs.
“I really think if we can reach kids earlier with their diet, they’ll be healthier,” says Dan Wecker, owner/executive chef of Elkridge Furnace Inn. Wecker, who last spring volunteered with Days of Taste at Deep Run Elementary, brought vegetables and salad greens from his restaurant’s organic garden, as well as apples, oranges, cheese, olives, chickpeas and black bean relish for the salads as well as the ingredients to whisk together a champagne vinaigrette.
“Every one of them ate their salad. If they make it themselves and eat it, it makes an impression,” says Wecker.
Exactly the outcome Days of Taste wants.
“Having professional chefs and farmers talk about what they do every day has a big impact on the kids,” says Riva Eichner¿Kahn, chairperson for the Baltimore chapter of Days of Taste. “This and allowing the kids to prepare the food makes our program different from anything else out there.”
Days of Taste incorporates nutrition, math, environmental science, geography and teamwork in its curriculum. Children learn where their food comes from, how different types of soil impact growth and taste, and measure ingredients. Plus, the students learn how their taste buds respond to different tastes such as salty, sweet, sour and bitter, and how those tastes change when each one is combined with another, such as combining plain unsweetened cocoa powder with sugar, or squirting fresh lemon juice on arugula. Color is another concept. A yellow jelly bean may not taste like lemonade. It could taste like popcorn.
The bottom line with Days of Taste is exactly that. Don’t assume you won’t like something. Just try it.
“I don’t think kids understand how food is grown,” says Stacie Dispenza, instructional assistant and para¿educator at Laurel Woods Elementary, which hosted the program last year. “A lot of these kids have never been on a farm.”
She has seen a difference in her students’ food choices since going through the program.
“More kids are choosing apples, yogurt, carrots and celery in the cafeteria, and strawberries. They love strawberries,” says Dispenza.
While organic or fresh¿picked produce is ideal, a balanced approach to the ideal and what the students can actually get at home is key. Whether tomatoes come from a container garden on their balcony or from the produce section of the local supermarket, the students are encouraged to sample fresh foods and to experiment with ingredients.
“They have permission not to like it,” says Kahn, “but we talk to them about how they could adjust the taste to their liking, or maybe they just need to try it another time. Maybe they’ll like it then, or not at all.”
With Days of Taste, students are divided into teams of six to eight and members decide what ingredients they want to put in their salads. Different chefs bring different ingredients. No knife skills are required; everything is pre¿chopped. All they need are bowls, whisks, measuring tools and open minds.
At the end of the program, the children get a T¿shirt, a booklet and a certificate of completion, which is handed out to each student by the guest chef. At a later date, classes are encouraged to write paragraphs about what they learned, which are sent to Kahn. She shared a few from kids all over the county.
“I hate tomatoes but then I ate it with the salad and it was really good,” one child wrote.
“Who would think we could make salad dressing out of mustard, blood oranges and lime juice?” another student mused.
Yet another reflected: “I learned that you want to balance your food and don’t soak your salad in ranch.”
Since the program started three years ago, six Howard County elementary schools have hosted it.
Besides Wecker, Howard County chefs Donna Crivello from Donna’s Café and Coffee Bar, Erik Rochard from Café de Paris, Matt Milani from the Rumor Mill, and Marc Dixon from Bistro Blanc have donated time and ingredients. Classes visit Shaw Farm in Columbia and Gorman Farm in North Laurel.
Kahn hopes to expand the program to more schools each year. Currently, the cost per school is about $8 per student. Days of Taste is funded through grants and donations and operates with the help of volunteers. For more information, contact Riva Eichner¿Kahn at firstname.lastname@example.org or the Baltimore/MD American Institute of Wine & Food at 410¿244¿0044.
The institute is hosting a benefit called The Farmer and The Chef to support Days of Taste, with 20 Maryland chefs paired with local farms to create inventive recipes. The competition takes place Sept. 26 at 6 p.m. at the Maryland Science Center in Baltimore. Tickets are $75. For details, go to www.thefarmerandthechefmd.com.