Food sustainability. Urban agriculture. These terms are becoming familiar, and the concepts they represent are slowly gaining support in our communities. Spreading the words more widely can be accomplished by connecting people with caring and knowledgeable chefs, growers, and producers. This is part of the mandate of an organization called Growing Chefs! And they’re not preaching to the converted, but rather to a segment of the population who have likely never heard about eating locally: school children.
Andrew Fleet is the founder of Growing Chefs! Ontario. Since its incorporation in 2008, this non-profit organization has been educating, exciting and entertaining children about the food that goes on their plate and how it got there. Fleet, whose background includes working his way through the varying strata of the restaurant industry to management, was originally inspired by a similar program in Vancouver, created by colleague and pastry chef, Merri Schwartz. A parent himself, Andrew is now a convincing and passionate advocate for involving children in all aspects of food, including growing and kitchen prep work. He strongly believes that the key to changing a fast-food mindset starts with getting children, and indeed, entire communities on board with the notion that eating healthy can be both fun and easy.
“We don’t need to overthink this because kids already get it,” Fleet says, laughing. “Good food is often really simple.” He cites the example of a perfect heirloom tomato sliced up and scattered with salt, best olive oil and balsamic vinegar. “When I served this in a restaurant situation, I was sent to ask the chef no less than three times to find out what he had done to make it taste so amazing. The last time, he just put his knife down and said ‘It’s just the tomato!’ ”
Growing Chefs! provides a perfect platform for local chefs to channel their vocational love of cooking into a meaningful and important instruction for both children and young adults. The response has been incredibly positive. The Growing Chefs website features a list of chefs who are currently involved, and it’s a veritable who’s who in London. Fleet says he has been awestruck by the kindness and generosity of these extremely busy volunteers who willingly give their time. He also laughingly credits the “Spiderman effect” – that moment when a chef enters the class dressed in his whites and hat – for really making an impression.
The programs have been carefully constructed with the school curriculum in mind, and use food to help teach math, history and science. Noteworthy is the Covent Garden Market’s “Fresh Food Frenzy,” during which the chefs and students tour the market, embark on a scavenger hunt to select ingredients and finally, prepare a meal which they will ultimately eat together.
Fleet provides a stream of anecdotes – some amusing, some quite poignant – about children’s reactions toward common vegetables. For example, when a chef in the classroom mentioned corn-on-the-cob, one child called out “Corn on the what?” When a show of hands was requested, at least a dozen children had never heard of or even sampled “corn-on-the-cob.”
Vegetables also provide an opportunity for playful guessing games. The chef holds up a number of different varieties and the class tries to provide the correct name. Results can be surprising. For example, out of approximately 450 students, only twelve recognized a radish, and not one of them could identify either rutabagas or beets! Similarly, although all of the students were clearly familiar with ‘B is for Broccoli’ on the classroom alphabet sign, an actual real-life broccoli on the stalk did not evoke any connection. (Purple heirloom carrots and the intergalactic-looking fennel bulb were also featured later and proved to be especially mysterious – even to some of the staff!)
Cynics should be referred to the outstanding success and sheer joy well-documented at this year’s fundraising Grickle Grass Festival (www.gricklegrassfest.com) hosted by the London Regional Children’s Museum, where Growing Chefs featured prominently. Delighted children made their own salad dressings, dabbled in “food art,” and generally had a blast.
On a very basic level, we all need to eat three times a day, so mastering how to do this economically, mindfully, and with optimum taste and nutrition is a superb life skill to be armed with. Andrew Fleet notes: “We all know that we – and of course our children – should be eating healthy foods. But then there’s the matter of what we actually do eat. It’s a serious disconnect. The missing piece is that we all need to know how to eat well and understand that it can be done.”
Sue Sutherland Wood is a freelance writer who also works in the London Public Library system. She lives in London with her teenage sons and a floating population of dogs and cats.