• warning: Parameter 2 to ed_classified_link_alter() expected to be a reference, value given in /home/soloneconomist/www/www/includes/common.inc on line 2968.
  • warning: Parameter 2 to ed_classified_link_alter() expected to be a reference, value given in /home/soloneconomist/www/www/includes/common.inc on line 2968.

Grow It Cook It

Kids take vegetables from garden to table
Garden intern Michaela Powell and Volunteer and Garden Coordinator Ilsa Dewald inspect zinnias growing in the pollinator garden patch at the North Liberty’s Growing Together Garden space. (photo by Janet Nolte)

NORTH LIBERTY– What kid hasn’t turned up their nose at vegetables, no matter how well prepared, opting instead for French fries or pizza, if given the choice? It’s a perennial problem for parents of middle-schoolers and teenagers.
A new program, piloted this summer in Johnson County, aims to offer a solution. On Aug. 9, kids who participated in the Grow It Cook It summer day camp held their first public “Taste and Tour” event at the garden space adjacent to the North Liberty Community Pantry (NLCP).
The idea for a hands-on summer camp focusing on nutrition education evolved through the observations of Amey Kolar, a program associate for Johnson County’s 4-H and Youth department within Iowa State University’s Extension and Outreach services.
During the 2016-17 school year, Kolar worked with teenagers in an after-school club and mentoring program called Noble Knights at North Central Junior High. Through the school-based program, supported in part by Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Johnson County, Kolar discovered many students had a latent hunger for opportunities to learn more about healthy foods and basic skills in preparing satisfying dishes.
“We did some cooking with the kids and found out that they love it, but they don’t have much experience in it,” said Kolar. “Just seeing a need with the teenagers. They need the life skills. They also need healthy ways of eating.”
Kolar recognized kids would benefit greatly from learning about healthy alternatives to the ubiquitous temptations of fast and junk food.
“Just learning, taking care of yourself and cooking for yourself­ a lot of kids don’t experience it,” she noted.
Along with a focus on healthy cooking, Kolar envisioned a program to help kids learn where their food comes from. But she faced a problem.
“How am I going to do that when I know nothing about gardening myself?” she wondered.
That’s when Kolar contacted Volunteer and Garden Coordinator Ilsa DeWald, at the NLCP.
“Amey came out to the garden and we toured and talked,” recalled DeWald. “She was really excited about doing some education with the middle school groups around gardening skills and cooking skills, and figuring out ways to combine those for a program during the summer.”
That was last fall just after the second harvest season for North Liberty’s Growing Together Garden (GTG), an initiative cultivated from the NLCP’s mission to provide nutritional resources to the community.
DeWald wanted to develop more programming for kids at the NLCP garden, so their discussion led to a natural partnership.
“Amey offered to contribute a lot of the logistics of getting kids registered. She had a connection to the schools already and to many of the kids that I didn’t have yet, so she was able to provide that and take the lead on applying for the grant,” said DeWald.
DeWald offered the garden space at the NLCP in addition to gardening activities and curriculum. Like Kolar, DeWald also recognized a need to give kids in the community access to skills and knowledge about healthy eating.
“I’ve noticed that kids will try a lot more vegetables is if they’ve grown or harvested them themselves,” said DeWald. “We’ve done a couple of tastings just out here with some of the vegetables that a lot of kids haven’t tried, but were more willing to try if they had a group of peers that were also trying it and taking that risk.”
With funding and in-kind support from the county 4-H program, NLCP, the city of North Liberty and Farm Credit Services of America, Grow It Cook It launched last April with a cooking class taught by Kolar at the North Liberty Recreation Center.
“We did a cooking class and Ilsa (DeWald) came in and did a seedling class to get seedlings started,” said Kolar. “We wanted to really give the kids that I was already working with a taste of what this was all going to be about.”
After registering a group of students from North Liberty schools, the invitation to participate in the summer camp was extended to students at schools throughout the county.
“I’m really glad we opened it up because now they’ve met new friends from different schools,” Kolar noted.
Based on the participation of her children, North Liberty resident Titi Ituck can attest to the success of the “Grow It Cook It” program. “I knew that my children actually enjoyed cooking, but in the past they weren’t too keen on growing anything,” said Ituck. “But once they tried the garden, they were excited and wanted to go back and see how big their fruits and vegetables would be and whether they would be able to harvest it.”
Ituck observed her kids also greatly improved their cooking and cutting skills. “Before I used to supervise them in certain things, but now they know the different names of the knives and how to cut carefully without harming themselves.”
Kolar said the 4-H concept of experiential learning provided the structure and format of activities in both the garden and the kitchen.
“It’s not about telling the kids what to do, it’s letting them experience it for themselves,” Kolar explained.
“Like in their garden­ a lot of them had never planted a garden before. Some of the things didn’t come up. Why didn’t that plant grow? Oh my goodness, our plant just got eaten by rabbits, what happened and how do you keep rabbits out?”
“It’s learning by doing and learning from what works and what doesn’t,” said Kolar. “That’s what the 4-H model is all about.”
DeWald shares this educational philosophy, something she came to appreciate from her experience working with a student organization called the University of Iowa Gardners prior to joining the staff at the NLCP two-and-a-half years ago.
“Just trying new skills, figuring things out, making mistakes, and trying new things­ that’s where I actually learned,” said DeWald. “Something I’ve always kept in mind with my work here at the pantry is that model of learning with peers is a great way to feel comfortable to make those mistakes, and having as well some people with more knowledge.”
According to DeWald, when veteran gardeners come out to the garden and share their years of experience with beginners in the pantry’s programs, it becomes an opportunity to engage the entire community in healthy eating.
“Vegetables that you grow yourself or that are grown in the garden with the awesome Iowa soil taste a lot different than the things you’re going to pick out on the grocery store shelves,” said DeWald.
“Some of the participants in this program, their families may not utilize the pantry resources…but maybe they’re not as able to afford fresh local produce during the summer, or go to the farmers market. That can still be a big barrier,” she added.
“And that’s a big part of this, too, the community piece,” said Kolar. “There’s also the great partnership (between the program and the pantry) because not only are the kids benefitting but so is the pantry here.”
It all adds up to a meaningful avenue to get students involved in service learning.”
“They’ve served in there, they’ve washed tons of produce, they’ve shucked corn to put in the coolers. They’re weeding the whole garden, not just their little plots,” noted Kolar. “Both Ilsa and I hope we get to do it again next year. We really hope this is the beginning, we hope it grows because it really is important.”