Students who live in the impoverished Martindale-Brightwood area of Indianapolis don't realize food on their plates grows in the ground, pointed out Ronak Shah at the 12th annual Food and Growers Association Winter Conference Feb. 3.
The KIPP Indy College Prep Middle, Indianapolis, seventh-grade science teacher was at Batesville Middle School to discuss "Eating Your Vegetables: How to Trick Kids Into Loving Healthy Food."
Shah described what his students are up against in their quest for nutrition. The closest neighborhood grocery store is 2 miles away. "In theory, you could drive there, but most of these folks don't have cars" and are afraid to walk as two spots have repeated shootings. It's less stressful for families to get their food at gas stations and dollar stores, but sometimes items are expensive and processed.
On the other hand, he noted, Martindale-Brightwood does have some great gathering places – a pool, afterschool programs and urban farms.
"It's a very confusing environment for students who struggle with literacy" and can't calculate serving sizes. The teacher reported, "Our students experience disproportionately high rates of childhood diabetes and obesity" – and high rates of poverty and crime.
So he leads a weekly afterschool cooking and gardening club for students, "something they really find exciting." With students having short attention spans, "I try to keep things as engaging and interactive as possible" in the classroom.
Shah began the club five years ago at a different Indianapolis school. "Initially it was just me with an electric skillet, cutting board and knife."
Of the effort to educate families about food to improve their health, "a lot of people and community organizations are working to make this better."
"Little donations come from different places" for the food used in his club sessions. Sources range from Second Helpings to area farmers' markets. The teacher admitted sometimes it's easier for him to simply purchase the food he needs.
The Big Green nonprofit, co-founded and led by Kimbal Musk, Elon's brother, donated 12 raised garden beds to the school. "Big Green is building a national school food culture that promotes youth wellness. We’re connecting kids to real food through a network of Learning Gardens and food literacy programs" in seven cities, including Indy, according to https://biggreen.org.
First Big Green workers had to remediate the soil at Shah's school by removing lead pollutants. A garden educator trained teachers and provided the curriculum.
The presenter suggested teachers at other schools who want to educate students about good-for-you foods use free "pretty high quality" curriculum from the state of California.
Shah uses the garden as a teaching tool. Math skills are sharpened as students calculate spaces between plants, for instance.
He believes students learn by doing, so students manage the garden beds, harvest produce used during the afterschool club and even improvise recipes on food stamp budgets. The excess produce is distributed in the school community.
Students also teach cooking classes to adults and families at churches, community centers and the farmers' market.
To care for the school garden in the summer, Shah got funding to pay four students $20 weekly stipends. "This past summer there was so much rain we barely had to do anything." There are rarely issues with weeding and pests.
He noted, "I don't know if I will have that this summer." Without funding, the teacher will manage the garden.
Margaret Mary Health dietitian and longtime FGA board member Kathy Cooley asked about health outcomes. "I don't have data, unfortunately," answered the teacher. He did have anecdotal evidence. Students who participate in the club are much more likely to eat school vegetables. "When collecting trash, that part of the plate is empty."
Many students tasted beets for the first time and told Shah, "'They're really good.' Students are realizing homegrown vegetables are very flavorful. Part of that is pride. They picked it and made ... (the dish) themselves."
Dr. Chris Ault, a Batesville chiropractor, said, "I'm just really thrilled you're talking to kids early in life and now they're making (good) choices .... Everything we want (to eat) is fat and sugar."
Shah recalled that every school used to offer some level of cooking instruction, but in many schools those programs got cut. At KIPP that classroom is now a daycare room. "Now this (cooking and gardening club) almost looks innovative when it's not."
Mary Meyer, Oldenburg, wondered, "Has kids' health or attention spans improved?" The teacher replied, "They do tend to eat healthier, but the problem is, access (to fresh fruits and vegetables) still isn't there. Not all of them have yards" for gardens, as most live in apartments or public housing.
When Ault asked about how students have been inspired, Shah told three stories.
A few years ago, the teacher learned one of his students was in a diabetic coma and missed two weeks of school. The principal encouraged the boy to join the cooking club. At a community banquet, he tried mushrooms and liked them. The student said, "I don't like mushrooms, but I like these mushrooms." Shah reported with better eating habits, "since then, he hasn't had any major (medical) issues."
The teacher received an email from a mom of one of his students who is also a teacher. One evening her son prepared dinner, chopping up produce and cooking at the stove. "I didn't know his skills," she wrote, and appreciated the help.
One student was not successful academically. He had been expelled twice and retained once. The young man moved out of the school district, but Shah learned he works on a farm in the summer and is interested in starting an ag business because of his experience in the Learning Garden.
Now the teacher is working on a larger neighborhood project. A group is applying for a $50,000 grant from the Indianapolis Star to establish garden sites for 20 families. Each family would get soil, seeds, water access, 12 weeks of education and kitchen equipment. If the garden is kept up, the family would get to keep the plot, finally gaining access to fresh produce.
Debbie Blank can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 812-934-4343, Ext. 113.
Healthy Ranch Dressing
3 tablespoons parsley
3 tablespoons dill
2 green onions
1 1/2 teapoons salt
1 1/2 teaspoons pepper
1 tablespoon garlic powder
2 1/2 cups nonfat plain yogurt
Chop fresh herbs and onions. Mix all ingredients together and refrigerate.