Stacey Johnston holds aloft a handful of dark red beets, plumes of greens still intact, for the eager third-graders at Newfane Elementary School to inspect.
She asks if they know what they are and why they still have dirt clinging to their roots.
“They’re beets and it’s because they come out of the ground,” one bright student quickly answers.
The beets were part of a parade of local, seasonal vegetables the kids were quizzed on that day.
Hands shot up across the cafeteria where the program was taking place against a backdrop of giant, colorful drawings of superhero fruit and vegetable characters, known as the “Nutrition Defenders,” on the walls.
Children were eager to answer the questions – just what Johnston likes to see as she leads the “Cooking with Kids” and “Harvest of the Month” programs in area schools.
Johnston is the Farm to School Coordinator, as well as a community educator, for Cornell Cooperative Extension of Niagara County in Lockport. She and co-community educator Jen Regan present the new programs monthly throughout the school year at six elementary schools on the eastern end of the county.
After a quick lesson on the physical makeup of the vegetable or fruit being highlighted that month (carrots, in this case), Johnston and Regan divided up the two classes of third-graders for a little cooking lesson, letting each student try his or her hand at grating a carrot before inviting a group effort to read a recipe, measure the ingredients and make a dressing. Then, each child could taste the finished creation.
“I think it’s amazing,” said Layla Roth, 9, of the program. “I eat carrots – mostly raw.”
“I like that we get to eat here after lunch, so we don’t get hungry after lunch,” said Ahron Henry, 8. “And carrots are really good for us.”
“My mom and our friends and family all like carrots,” said Levi Henning, who said he likes to make cinnamon rolls and bagels with his mother’s help at home.
A surprising number of youngsters said they like to help out in the kitchen at home, including three 8-year-olds – Jenna Stefanoski, Jillian Cottrell and Bailee Patcyk.
Jillian, a fan of home-cooked breakfasts, said she might use local fruits in the smoothies she likes to make.
And while none of these children live on a farm, Bailee said her grandmother has a farm, with horses and a barn.
“I like to cook breakfast for my family – eggs and toast – and my sister helps me, but she’s younger,” Bailee said.
Jenna Arroyo, principal of Newfane Elementary School, said the program offers “a beautiful showcase of what our community has to offer,” adding that many of the students’ families live or work on farms in the area.
“It’s important to learn about healthy, nutritious foods, and the students are also learning about business opportunities in the agriculture field and this is all right in our own backyard,” Arroyo said. “The fruits and vegetables used in the program are all locally grown and it gives the students a chance to try new things and eat something they might not have tried before, instead of being stuck in the processed food world.
“We really look forward to this program each month – both the teachers and the kids,” Arroyo said.
Johnston explained that the Cooking with Kids program is funded with a one-year grant from the Allen Foundation. Harvest of the Month is a branch of the Farm to School initiative, made possible through the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets.
She figured she and Regan are reaching 1,500 to 2,000 students each month, striving to teach them where their food comes from, how to make healthy lifestyle choices and stressing the value of eating locally grown produce.
Grapes were October’s Harvest of the Month, for example, and the students learned the many ways grapes are used, as well as fun facts like the difference between jams and jellies. The kids sampled grape jelly produced by Blackman Farms in Cambria, as well as Concord and Steuben grapes.
November’s carrots came from Hiller Farms in Burt, which also supplied the grapes. Hall’s Apple Farm in Lockport provided the honey. December featured beets and next up is cabbage.
“We’re also going to be talking about canning and preserving, so the kids know that just because tomatoes don’t grow here in January, doesn’t mean they can’t eat (local) tomatoes now,” added Regan.
Johnston also works with the schools’ food service staffs to promote more local produce being served for school breakfasts and lunches. She is helping connect a number of schools throughout the county with local farmers.
Johnston took some time in between students’ questions and hugs (she’s become quite popular here) to talk about the Farm to School movement and the importance of initiatives like Cooking with Kids and the Harvest of the Month, as well as her own background in local agriculture.
Q: How did you pick third-graders?
A: Each month we visit the elementary schools in Newfane, Barker, Wilson, Royalton-Hartland, Starpoint and Charles Upson School in Lockport. We wanted to do this for the entire elementary school (every grade) in each district, but can’t yet, and we had to pick a grade so we picked third grade because it was right in the middle.
But I’m also trying to get more local produce in our school cafeterias, and so I’m working with a number of schools throughout the whole county for this. So there is a kids’ component to what I do, and a cafeteria component.
Q: Is this just a one-year program?
A: Yes. The grant is for one year, so we’ll visit every school each month through June. The Cooperative Extension is always applying for grants for programs like these.
Q: What is your background?
A: I grew up on our family farm in Akron. My grandparents lived down the road and they had sheep, beef cattle and pigs, and they grew crops to sell, too, so I grew up helping there. I started showing animals in 4-H and now I am the Niagara County 4-H sheep leader.
I have an associate degree in agriculture business from Alfred State College and then went back to school later for my bachelor’s degree in business management at Houghton College.
I wanted to get back to my agricultural roots and I love working with kids, so this is the best of both worlds.
Q: What do you think the kids gain through this?
A: This is only the fourth time we’ve been here (interrupted by a hug) and they’re already excited to see me, so hopefully, we’re having a positive impact.
In December, we talked about beets, about portion size, and the importance of having servings of fruits and vegetables. We’re talking about cabbage this month.
Farm to School and Harvest of the Month are national initiatives, but this is the first time we’ve done this in Niagara County. It’s the first time for Cooking with Kids, too.