It feels like autumn as I am setting up One Cool Earth’s booth at San Benito Elementary’s Fall Festival and Trunk or Treat. As I arrive to set-up, I drive my car through a gate where I notice other cars setting up for the event. Unintentionally, I set up my booth in the Trunk or Treat area. If you are unaware of Trunk or Treat, it is an event where adults decorate the back of their cars for Halloween, load up on candy, and come sit in a parking lot for kids to “trick or treat” fully dressed in Halloween costumes. I am picking tomatoes, celery, and sage from the garden to hand out to families while other adults are setting up, so I don’t realize I’m set-up in the wrong spot until I come down from the garden and cannot move my car because the gates are locked for the event to start.
One Cool Earth’s main activity for the Fall Festival was hosting a pumpkin hummus taste test. Twenty minutes prior to the event, I started placing pumpkin spice dip on crackers. As I was finishing set-up, two elementary girls dressed up in their costumes came up to my table. They had their halloween candy bags out and seemed curious about what I was working on. To them, I didn't look like a traditional Trunk or Treat. I smiled at them and started my speech, “Hi, I help at your school garden and made pumpkin spice dip out of pumpkins that grew in the garden! Would you like to taste test it and then vote on it?!” One girl responded with a sort of funny smirk and said, “Ha. No… No one is going to eat that. Haha!” And then she walked on by.
Kids say the most wicked things when they try new foods--it’s definitely not always easy to get them to try in the first place. Thankfully, with taste tests, we use delicious recipes and create an atmosphere of excitement that encourages kids to take a taste of a new healthy food.
Here’s how it works:
Despite the scary feedback from my first participants, the pumpkin hummus was an overwhelming success. Based on results from both adults and kids (but mostly the kids), we had 7% ‘try it’ without enjoying it and 93% ‘like it’ or ‘love it’. Many taste testers described it as pumpkin pie filling and were surprised when I told them the main ingredient is chickpeas. The PTA asked for the recipe, so it is now shared with San Benito to make with their families.
Taste tests have the power to get kids to try to new healthy food. One Cool Earth continues to encourage students to try the garden produce that students planted, enjoying the experience of seed to table bringing excitement to REAL food.
Childhood obesity rates have tripled since 1980, American toddlers are more likely to eat french fries than green vegetables on any given day, and it is estimated that 20 percent of all American meals are eaten in a car.
With dire facts such as these, what can be done to make a change in a positive direction for the health of our kids and our meals? One Cool Earth has decided to act by hosting Family Cooking Nights: a free event where families are invited to join us as we guide them through a recipe and facilitate family mealtime with real plates and real time to talk to one another.
Our goal for Family Cooking Nights is to demonstrate that cooking and eating together can be fun, easy, and affordable. Cooking with their family also benefits children in numerous ways. Exposure to scratch cooking helps kids develop a mature taste for fresh ingredients and consider the portions and nutrition of what they are eating. Cooking also creates the necessary space and time for families to feel connected to one another by engaging in conversation (sans phones), collaborating around a task, and sharing the fruits of their labors together.
With each recipe we made, we are seeing the benefits of creating a space to cook and share food as a family. One surprised parent told me at our last Family Cooking Night at San Benito Elementary school “I have never seen my son go near an onion, but he ate two [black bean and sweet potato empanadas] and said he loved them!” At another event, we were told by family that they cherished the time they were able to spend together cooking and the taste of food made from scratch because their current housing circumstances did not allow for home cooked meals. For us, stories such as these demonstrate that every child deserves not only a place to grow, but also to cook. It will create a generation of healthier, more informed eaters and strengthen familial bonds along the way.
Youth Changing The World
by Greg Ellis-Valencia - One Cool Earth, Executive Director
We often overlook the power of youth to change the world. Michael and Adriana are two students who represents the force of change that a few kids can create during recess.
Adriana and Micheal got involved when their teacher, Jim Roether, formed a lunch-time club--The Green Team--in partnership with One Cool Earth. Micheal and a few of his peers set out to change their school's environmental impact. Over the course of the year, The Green Team learned from One Cool Earth's educator and Mr. Roether about watersheds, and how humans impact their environment through waste and pollution. During the school year, several guest presenters visited the class, including County Supervisor Frank Mecham, Central Coast Salmon Enhancement's water testing professionals, Mayor Steve Martin, and a representative of a hydroponics company.
Undaunted by the problems they saw, Adriana, Michael and their team set forth with fresh ideas and optimism. Early in the year, they launched a compost and recycling program, bringing recycling to their campus. Every day at lunch, Adriana, Michael and their classmates would take turns standing at the lunch line, collecting uneaten fruits and vegetables to serve. The food they collected was fed to worms, which in turn produced compost for the student garden. During class once each week, students would collect recyclables from each classroom, sorting it into the proper dumpster.
Michael, Adriana and their team realized that styrofoam lunch trays were a big problem on campus. Although they were inexpensive for the school to buy, they took up a lot of space in the dumpster and increased waste hauling costs. And styrofoam requires hundreds of years to break down after being useful for only 15 minutes. To demonstrate how many trays the school used, the Green Team began collecting the trays. Once they'd accumulated several thousand, they stacked them, and using lumber and adobe, made a temporary structure to display both the problem of waste and also the solution of 'upcycling', or converting waste into a useful product.
The Green Team's hard work did not go unnoticed. The Green Team's school was awarded a grant by the local US Green Building Council for their work on recycling. The Food Services Director, in part due to the students bringing the styrofoam trays to his attention, replaced them with recyclable trays. To wrap up the year, the Green Team presented their projects to the community and were featured in the local Telegram Tribune (click to read the article).
Through EarthGenius's programs at over 21 schools, students are showing their leadership. 17 schools have begun recycling and composting programs to divert waste from the landfill and svae their schools money. Other schools have grown hundreds of native trees to give away and plant in the community. Five schools have installed rainwater catchment systems, and several others have installed drought tolerant gardens. From water savings, to waste, to revegetation and sustainable landscaping, students are taking responsibility for their campuses. Let's continue to value them and give them the space to do what they care about.
Gardens Changing Health
by Greg Ellis-Valencia - One Cool Earth Executive Director
Meet Helena. Helena is a real student in Paso Robles (we've changed her name here). Helena loves working in the garden, picking flowers (and eating some) and reading. Helena goes to a school where most of children belong to low-income families. By the age of 20, one in three of Helena's classmates will be overweight, and four in ten will have type II diabetes. Helena's lifespan is predicted to be shorter than that of her parents' generation.
But Helena is changing her odds. As a partner with One Cool Earth's EarthGenius program, her school provides access to garden-based education. Our EarthGenius program addresses three critical barriers to childhood health:
1. Overcoming Neophobia
Neophobia is the fear of trying new foods. As any parent knows, it can severely limit a child's diet. School gardens grow student curiosity, familiarity, and acceptance, providing a connection to their food and a supportive environment to experiment with eating. We've seen youth try and like all kinds of new foods, particularly fruits and vegetables.
2. Making Healthy Food Cool
Youth watch and learn from adults and peers. Our program provides passionate and talented educators to model good eating habits. We also take health home by inviting parents to participate in educational garden parties, hosting family cooking nights, sending food and recipes home, and broadcasting the importance of diet and health to the community.
3. Teaching Food Skills
Children are more able to recognize the top 10 food brands than the the 10 most common vegetables. From basic skills, like being able to recognize, choose, request, and eat healthy foods, to more advanced skills, like preparing a kale salad or black bean tostada, our program improves student self-efficacy to eat good food and change their own health.
And the results are compelling: on-going, hands-on gardening programs have been shown to triple student vegetable consumption.
Gardens Changing Health
by Mariah Marten-Ray - EarthGenius Garden Educator
One lunchtime recess, I was conversing with a one-on-one educator for a special education student, Paul (we've changed his name here), who is fascinated by biology and the garden. Paul always corrects my terminology about plants--he says, “Ms. Mariah, do you mean female and male kiwis? It’s not correct to call them boy and girl”. I’m the FoodCorps AmeriCorps service member at three PRJUSD schools, and I have the great joy of exploring school gardens with so many bright children like Paul. I express to the one-on-one educator how exciting it will be for him to get to harvest what he has planted come spring time! “You would think that”, she begins, “but I’ve never seen him touch a fruit or a vegetable. He only eats pretzels for lunch”. When I offered for Paul to pick and try some of the lettuce, he politely declined.
Neophobia, the fear of trying new foods, is a leading cause of mealtime battles with children. A child with special needs may face even more specific barriers leading them to have a complex relationship with food. For example, it is common for children with autism spectrum disorder to have heightened sensitivities to particular tastes, textures, or colors. Promoting positive nutrition behaviors in special needs children is an important part of their growth into confident, happy, and healthy adults. Partnering with Mrs. Keefer’s learning center, a special needs classroom, we began a creative writing food journaling program that gives kids fun opportunities to read, write, cook, and try new fruits and vegetables in a supportive outdoor learning environment. The following is a story written by a student about passion fruit. The prompt was to give passion fruit a new fun name and origin to entice the reader’s appetite:
Slimy Fish Egg Fruit
Once upon a time in a land far far away slimy fish egg fruit floated through outer space and into the ocean. Seahorse farmers looked inside of the fruit and said it looked like fish eggs and decided to grow the ugly fruit because maybe fish would grow. Fish did not grow out of the eggs. They were still happy because when they ate the fruit it was sour and delicious.
Journaling also allows time for the children to reflect on their feelings about trying new things and techniques they use to overcome fears so they can apply these tools to new situations. Paul, who used to only eat pretzels wrote, “I was nervous to try the passion fruit. It looked like guts on the inside. I gave it a shot because it was rare and now it is my number 1 favorite fruit.” Now Paul and his mom are growing a passion fruit vine at their house! Another student read to the class, “The first time I tried mushrooms we put them on my favorite food ever, hotdogs, and I took a deep breath. Now I just take a deep breath every time my mom wants me to try something new.”
We believe that small nibbles out in the garden can lead to a lifelong love of fruit and vegetables.
Gardens Changing Hearts
by Miranda Beal, Volunteer Manager and Garden Educator
In the first weeks of becoming a Garden Club Facilitator with One Cool Earth, I had to figure out how to recruit students to spend their lunchtime hour in the garden. How can I excite students to depart their time playing ball with friends and move into a garden which might be unfamiliar to them? Recreation and enjoyment is crucial to the well-being of all children. The truth is that enjoyment and pleasure can come from a variety of sources in the garden. For example, through connection to nature, building social relationships and the gratitude of nurturing and watching something grow (Simovska 2008). After making heart shaped bird feeders, salads, and garden bracelets, I have a reoccurring group of six 5th grade girls who spend their WHOLE lunchtime in the garden.
School gardens serves as a “safe place” for students. Studies show that large numbers of students report “that they feel ‘calm,’ ‘safe,’ ‘happy,’ and ‘relaxed’ in the school garden” (Habib & Doherty, 2007). I’m serious when I say they stay their whole lunch. The group of girl bring their lunch in the garden instead of the cafeteria. Even if the announcement about Garden Lunch Club doesn’t play in the morning announcements, I know they will be walking in the garden gate. I give them time to eat, socialize, connect with their friends, and then I lead a lesson where they still participate in those three things.
They are even more excited to eat the fresh vegetables that they grew last month!! It’s a wonderful feeling developing a place at a school where kids can play, feel comfortable, and be themselves.
Gardens Changing Minds
by Greg Ellis-Valencia - Executive Director, One Cool Earth
When people ask me why I work in the garden, I always think of Joey (his name has been changed here). Some mornings I would show up at the school garden in a foul mood, there only to fix a broken pipe or pull weeds. Joey would see me walking towards the garden and set up the cry, "Is the garden open?! Is the garden open?!" I couldn't help but crack a smile, no matter the serious nature of my business that day.
Joey's school has partnered with One Cool Earth since Joey was in the 3rd grade. When the garden opens, he's the first in and the last out. He is constantly asking questions, finding new insects (sphinx moth caterpillars, preying mantis, blue belly lizards, spiders, rollie pollies), and taking projects home--he's even planted his own garden at home. When he was in the 3th grade, he helped to plant sweet corn before school got out. After summer, he came back as a 4th grader to harvest in the fall his mother took some of the corn home to make tamales for the garden crew. Now in the 5th grade he is in the garden for his weekly science class, participating in standards-based hands-on activities and conducting experiments. In late May, his class will rehabilitate a part of the school landscape, combining the engineering design process and what they've learned about soil, habitat, Earth systems (geosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere, biosphere), and human impacts on the environment.
For many of Joey's peers, science does not come easily. Fewer than 50% of 5th grade students in his school are 'proficient' in science, according to state standardized testings. Low science scores at an elementary level translate into lower science performance throughout a child's educational pathway, and limit career options in their future. While there are many factors behind this figure, EarthGenius programming addresses two of the main ones:
1. While elementary teachers are overwhelmingly amazing, skilled teachers, they often lack formal training in science. Providing standards-based, science-focused teacher trainings three times per year helps teachers improve their capacity to teach rigorous, engaging science. Our trainings give them the garden and all its inter-related windows on the world as a context for their science classes.
2. Teaching students directly, using the garden as a living laboratory for students to experience hard-to-understand concepts in a personal, fun setting. California's adoption of the Next Generation Science Standards particularly lends itself to garden-based education, where experiences, higher-level thinking, and projects are emphasized more than memorization and text-book learning.
Most importantly, recent studies have borne out the validity of these methods to improve student science comprehension. One study by REAL School Gardens saw standardized test scores increase by up to 15% after teachers were trained garden-based science pedagogy.
Back in the garden last week, I asked Joey whether he thought the garden was helping him in science. He said, "I think so! I'm learning all about plants and animals, and I really like them." Joey's friend piped in too--"I want to study plants in college, so I figure I can learn as much as possible about them now."