Baltimore chefs donate their time to program that introduces kids to the joys of healthful eating
By Jacques Kelly
May 26, 2009 - The third-graders at a Catonsville elementary school recently took a break from the usual cafeteria fare of corn dogs and pizza to sample organic, field-grown salad greens mixed with black olives, apple cider vinegar and oil, Maryland strawberries and honey.
And they became chefs for a day, mixing their own salads and making their own dressing.
Their experience last week was a culmination of a three-morning seminar, called "Days of Taste," which teaches children about what's produced on Maryland farms, tells them about non-processed foods and encourages them to grow a little more adventurous at mealtime.
The program is offered at 17 Baltimore city and county schools, and the instructors who donate their time are some of Baltimore's best-known chefs, including John Shields of Gertrude's, Spike Gjerde of Woodberry Kitchen, Galen Sampson and Christian DeLutis of Dogwood restaurant and local chef and baker Ned Atwater.
"You can really see the light bulbs go off when some of the city children have never eaten a fresh, raw vegetable and they taste it in a salad," said Atwater, who has been teaching the classes for nearly a decade.
"Over the years, we've probably been to half the public schools in Baltimore," he said.
Last week, he took his aluminum salad bowls and non-iceberg lettuce to the Westowne Elementary School on Harlem Lane in Catonsville.
"Our program is different because we have real professional chefs and professional farmers," said Riva Kahn, a cell biologist who lives in Timonium and helped develop the program. "It opens the eyes of these kids to different career possibilities. Our angle is to let them discover that healthy food and good food are not mutually exclusive."
While not every plate at Westowne was completely clean at the end of the lesson, most were fairly empty.
"I like olives," said Samuel Cushman, 9, who explained his grandmother likes to put them in salads.
JanayaWilson, who said she likes to cook - and makes her own salad dressing - is not a fan of red peppers. "I've never liked them," she said, leaving an unconsumed section of them of her paper plate.
As part of the experience, the students boarded buses for One Straw Farm in White Hall in northern Baltimore County. They saw lettuce being started in the greenhouse and the growing fields. (Other suppliers include Brad's Produce in Churchville and Calvert's Gift Farm in Sparks.)
"I learned that compost is banana peels and leftover foods," said Kye McMath, who also said he now knows what part of the tongue are associated with sweet and sour.
Atwater led a post-salad discussion on whether the foods tasted salty, sweet, bitter, sour or "umami" - a Japanese word meaning savory.
"We put in things you wouldn't think would go in a salad - like strawberries - and they tasted really good," said Vivian Montgomery-Walsh, a 9-year-old. "Going to the farm was really cool because we learned how a seed turns into veggies and fruit."
The Westowne food and cooking class attracted a number of parents as helpers and faculty members as observers.
"The math and the science are great, then you can ... look at it as a health class," said Westowne's principal, Patricia Vogel.
"Days of Taste" is a project of the American Institute of Wine and Food, a nonprofit educational organization founded by television chef Julia Child, wine maker Robert Mondavi and others.
"It was a program that originated in French schools," said Atwater, who worked with Kahn and food writer Cynthia Glover to tweak the mini-seminar for local school children.
Members of the Baltimore AIWF chapter gave $14,000 for the school events last year.
All the chefs donate their time to teach the students.
Other chefs in the program include Nona Nielson-Parker of Atwater's, Michael Marx of Rub Barbecue, Barry Fleischmann of Innovative Gourmet, Vicky Barkley from The Classic Catering People, John Walsh of Chef's Expressions and Marc Dixon of Bistro Blanc in Glenelg.
"Over the years, I've seen food become more and more processed commercially," Atwater said. "I want to teach kids about a balanced diet and where the food they eat comes from."