Oak Grove’s pre-K students eat up their local veggies

BRATTLEBORO — The youngest Oak Grove School community members recently completed a delicious in-depth study of local foods, gardening, and cooking.

According to a news release, Oak Grove School's pre-K program was one of the 2021 Early Childhood Education CSA grant recipients through the Vermont Agency of Agriculture.

In its first year, this grant subsidizes 80 percent of the cost of a community-supported agriculture (CSA) farm share at the Vermont farm of your choice. Oak Grove's pre-K chose to work with Full Plate Farm in Dummerston.

Thirteen lucky 4- to 5-year-old students got to enjoy many locally grown treats this year, including radishes, kale, beets, scallions, Brussels sprouts, and winter squash. It was their first time trying some of these new flavors for many students.

Pre-K staff Jen Tourville and Jamie Champney and garden coordinator Tara Gordon found creative ways to inspire the students to try new things. Adding mystery to the tasting lessons was one successful approach, and student curiosity was encouraged.

Each week, Tourville and Gordon put a different produce item into a five senses mystery box-an oatmeal container with a sock sleeve attached by a rubber band. They invited the students to put their hand in and feel the vegetable inside and describe it with words, strengthening their language skills while also piquing their curiosity.

Recently, Champney made a mystery smoothie for the class with bananas, frozen berries, yogurt, and a mystery ingredient (spinach).

“Some students had never been willing to taste a smoothie before because they were already convinced that they wouldn't like it,” Champney said. “Adding mystery to the activity made all students curious enough to try it, and big surprise - they all liked it!”

The arrival of veggies from the CSA share helped students connect to their school garden, where many of the same plants were growing. Gordon guided students to harvest foods from their garden, and they combined their produce with the Full Plate Farm produce to cook some delicious recipes.

The class cooked twice a week throughout the growing season. Several of the most popular dishes they made included fresh vegetable spring rolls; many soups, including stone soup and root vegetable soup; sweet and salty radishes; and coleslaw.

Champney shared that often the students' first response to the idea of new food was, “Yuck, I don't like this!” but she discovered that when they cut the veggies into fun shapes or tried adding interesting flavors, for example, agave syrup to change the flavor of the radishes, students were pleasantly surprised to learn that they did like that food after all.

For the more reluctant students, Gordon introduced a five senses taste test, in which students closed their eyes and sometimes even plugged their noses when trying new food to focus on the texture of the food in their mouths.

The entire Oak Grove community benefited from this in-depth study of local food and cooking by the pre-K in several ways:

• Food cooked by the pre-K was often shared with school staff as a special meal. The staff enjoyed several soups and a root vegetable casserole prepared by the students and their teachers.

• Bags of extra fresh produce were sent home with students to share with their families. The produce came with a small sample of the meal that the students had made in school and the recipe, and families were encouraged to try the same recipe at home.

• Extra produce was also shared with other classrooms in the school. For example, Erek Tuma's fourth-grade class benefited from pre-K's abundance of kale for their Harvest of the Month taste test.

The classroom curriculum connections were particularly rich, linking cooking, gardening, and produce exploration with science and literacy. Ragan Anderson, nutrition educator from the Brattleboro Food Co-op, visited with the students, read stories, and featured butternut squash in a cooking project.

The Oak Grove team is already imagining what they will do to improve the program next season.

Overall, the school says this program was a huge success. As a result, the students are very excited about the school garden, and they look forward to cooking and gardening as a regular part of their weekly routine.

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