In New York’s Hudson Valley, farm-to-table food is no longer limited to upscale restaurants like Blue Hill Stone Barns. Because of mom Sandy McKelvey, fresh food grown on local farms is now bettering the fare in school cafeterias.
The Farm-to-School movement took off in this rural, scenic region north of New York City in 2009, shortly after McKelvey and her family moved to Cold Spring. At Haldane Elementary, her daughter’s new school, she volunteered to introduce a new curriculum centered on a new vegetable each month. For each lesson, kids plant or harvest the produce themselves from a garden, and with instruction from a local chef (often a student from the Culinary Institute of America in nearby Hyde Park), they prepare a hands-on recipe like asparagus and cheese tarts or Delicata squash salad, to be served in the cafeteria that week.
“Over the years, I’ve sensed a disconnect between kids and their understanding of where food comes from. When it’s prepackaged in boxes, they do not realize that everything comes from farms,” says McKelvey, a longtime CSA customer, in which she received weekly shipments of crops from a local farm. “Farm-to-School helps them better understand where food comes from, and it also really encourages healthier eating.” She adds, “It’s making cooking and growing food part of their life.”
If you asked any child in the country to recall the last food advertisement they saw, there’s a 97.8 percent chance that it was for a product high in fat, sugar or sodium. The fast food industry as a whole spends $12.6 million every single day marketing what public health advocates call “calorie-dense, low-nutrient” foods. The Farm-to-School lessons try to undo these commercials by getting kids interested in how fresh produce grows and tastes. McKelvey acknowledges that sugar occasionally slips into the menu, as in her pumpkin bread or strawberry-rhubarb parfait, but she says it’s all a part of getting kids to try something they wouldn’t normally eat, “whether it’s sweet or savory or kind of hidden.”
Happy to spend a day outside, the kids are enthused about the project; some of their teachers, on the other hand, have been harder to convince, as they worried it would take away from precious class time. But after seeing the program work, McKelvey says, even these naysayers relented. One crafty teacher even turned the recipes into a math lesson by changing each ingredient’s amount to a complex fraction.
A chance to learn while cooking? Sure beats mystery meat.