Eagle County students get lessons in fresh food
Vail, CO Colorado
EAGLE, Colorado – Sandy Story, director of Sowing Seeds, a greenhouse program at Brush Creek Elementary that teaches children how to grow food and how to eat it, never thought she’d see the day when children were fighting over kale.
But “Top Chef” Kelly Liken probably never expected to be a lunch lady, either.
Since starting in January, Sowing Seeds has presented new discoveries for the many involved, especially the 520 students that the program reaches. Ranging from preschoolers to fifth-graders, students learn all about the origin of food through hands-on activities at least once a week during the school year. It’s an integrative curriculum, so teachers of all subjects can use the greenhouse as a catalyst to discuss the food cycle, the natural environment, smart food choices, and in general, sustainable living. Story, a horticulturist, teaches the art of growing food, while her partner, Nicola Ripley, from the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens, teaches the science of growing plants.
“What I really want the kids to take away from this is that they know they can grow food to eat if they have to, and that they’re not afraid to try it,” Story says. “I want them to be able to recognize food. So many kids did not know what a corn plant looked like.”
Together, Story and Ripley cover just about the whole food cycle, from soil and composting to growing plants in pots and hydroponics to harvesting, and with the help of Liken – how to make it all taste delicious.
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Liken and her husband, Rick Colomitz, who together own Restaurant Kelly Liken in Vail, have felt the Vail Valley has needed a greenhouse program like this for quite some time.
“Kids don’t know where their food comes from,” Liken says. “I feel it’s a major cause of the childhood obesity problem in America. Kids think their food comes from a restaurant or a box.”
The couple sparked an initial conversation with the Vail Valley Foundation about the program, and the nonprofit jumped on board, agreeing to underwrite it, and Sowing Seeds was born.
In the summertime, Liken supplies her fine dining restaurant with 100 percent locally grown and raised food. For Liken, Saturdays and Sundays are spent at local farmers’ markets shopping for the week and talking with farmers about what’s fresh next week.
“We want to integrate food education in the child lifestyle early on, so that we have a generation of kids who appreciate what they eat and where it comes from. We want to teach them to support the local food economy and to support their community.”
This is where Liken the “lunch lady” comes into play. Sprouting from Sowing Seeds is Brush Creek Elementary’s “Scratch Cooking,” a pilot program starting this school year that will bring fresh, local and made-from-scratch food into the cafeteria, as opposed to the standard heat-and-serve fare schools usually offer. Though the school has hired a chef, Liken plans to be involved as much as possible, designing recipes and overseeing the menus.
The food grown by Sowing Seeds’ students will end up in the cafeteria, augmenting outside purchases, especially for a salad bar. Though, Story says, Sowing Seeds is not about producing, it’s about teaching, she will be able to supply 150 heads of lettuce about every three to four weeks from the greenhouse’s hydroponics system.
“The food that doesn’t make it to the cafeteria, kids just eat it. There’s a lot of grazing that goes on here. And I want them not to be afraid to eat it. Food doesn’t have to come out of a bag,” Story says.
Liken and Colomitz have a dream of expanding the “Scratch Cooking” program into other valley schools, especially those schools that have a high percentage of free or reduced price lunches, situations where kids depend on school for a healthy, nutritious meal. Brush Creek’s program, Liken says, as she helps it to become more self sufficient financially, will allow her to form a template that other schools can use to accomplish the same type of from-scratch cafeteria program.
“I want to be able to hand schools a packaged plan and say, ‘I know this sounds hard, but if you do it like this, it works,'” Liken says.
For now, Sowing Seeds is in the midst of a weeklong summer camp, and the greenhouse is a busy place.
One day, Story taught campers to tie-dye using vegetable dyes, and they built “fairy houses” out of compostable materials to invite good spirits into the yard. Campers also learned how plants are used around the world for medicine. But mostly, there’s a lot of harvesting happening.
“I tried cherry tomatoes for the first time yesterday,” Emma Hutchinson, 7, says. “I like them, but they wouldn’t be my No. 1 choice.”
“I learned how different plants are picked,” Ella Dose, 9, from Eagle Valley Elementary says. “The way you twist a tomato to pick it and how you cut basil at a certain point.”
On Wednesday, campers were harvesting pizza toppings in preparation for a cooking lesson from Liken. They picked zucchini, tomatoes, green onions, basil and peppers, and cut many different variety of greens for a big salad. Then they headed inside to assemble their pies, picking up kitchen tips, like how to stop your cutting board from sliding or where olive oil comes from.
And almost every Friday, volunteer campers head to the Farmers’ Market in Eagle to assist Liken in a cooking demos and for an elementary business lesson. Kids determine the price of their produce and sell it, all funds landing back in the greenhouse.
“I feel lucky to be here in the greenhouse,” Abby Fields says, who will be going into fifth grade at Eagle Valley Elementary School. “Most kids don’t get to come here in the summer, and a lot of kids love coming to the greenhouse.”
Cassie Pence is a freelance writer based in Vail.