On spreading the good news…of kale, that is

Greens from the Magnolia garden.

Greens from the Magnolia garden.

One of my mother’s favorite pastimes is getting my stepfather to unknowingly eat his vegetables–and enjoy them. Kale and beets are her current champions, but during summer’s bounty, she’ll creatively experiment with varieties of eggplant, tomatoes, and summer squash. Mom’s surreptitious cooking exploits have slowly chipped away at Cecil’s white-bread-and-bologna upbringing. He now reluctantly eats tofu and vegetable curry, enthusiastically enjoys a bowl of homemade chili (unaware of the finely diced kale and ground beets within), and I even saw him eating the seaweed from his bowl of ramen.

Mom and Cecil, loving husband and culinary guinea pig.

Mom and Cecil, loving husband and culinary guinea pig.

I am my mother’s daughter in a lot of ways, and this is one of them. Once, I brought black bean avocado brownies to an office party, waiting until the entire plate was devoured before revealing the identities of their secret ingredients, to the horror of some of my coworkers.

Garden goofballs.

Some of my favorite garden goofballs.

Although it was tempting, I decided to keep the secret ingredients to a minimum when preparing for our first school garden open house event. With the chaotic energy of the holidays enveloping the school in a Christmas-themed cloud, I thought it appropriate to host a celebration in honor of how far our garden program had come in the past three and a half months. Of course, the ulterior motive was to recruit parent volunteers and co-opt more teachers to the ways of the garden

Central to the occasion was the food, relatively healthy food. Prentiss made a delicious sweet potato cake; I made a salad with quinoa, dried cranberries, and a few pounds of garden fresh collards, kale, and broccoli leaves. And to entertain the Santa-crazed children, I had a craft table set up making holiday-themed potato prints (but actually y’all, this activity is not just for kids).

Lots of good food. And a raw potato, acting as a paperweight.

Lots of good food. And a raw potato, acting as a paperweight.

Potato prints.

Potato printing: surprisingly easy and addictive.

Overall, it was successful. Even though only one parent showed up, there was a good turnout of teachers and staff, a few community members, and all of the Jackson FoodCorps ladies. I especially enjoyed talking to the people who, though initially dubious of the whole “garden business,” were now excitedly asking questions about growing beets and making kale salads. Some of the kiddos picked giant bok choy leaves as party favors, a few of which were devoured before making it into the building.

Potato print champs!

Arts and crafts champs!

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As much as I enjoy manipulating people to eat vegetables, moments like these, when kids (and adults) independently make choices that benefit their health are far more gratifying. I think that allowing kids to make healthy choices on their own is the best way for them to form lasting healthy habits. The key is providing students with the means to make those choices, educating them about food, and encouraging them to step outside their comfort zones.

Eating their greens, and looking into the sun.

Eating our greens and looking into the sun.

It can also mean not being personally offended when an 8 year old sprints to the trash can to spit out that organic, locally grown radish or collapses in dry heaves at the sight of the school compost pile.  Cherishing the small victories are reason enough for me to keep doing what I’m doing. Because witnessing that same radish spitter-outer nibbling on kale stems of his own accord is, to me, on par with any Christmas miracle.

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Gettin’ nippy in ‘Sippi

Fall in the 'Sip. There is a beautiful multi-use path along the Natchez Trace.

Fall in the ‘Sip. There is a beautiful multi-use path along the Natchez Trace.

I remember August 30, 2013 clearly– the humidity steamed up the windows of any air conditioned building, and the hot sun was obscured in a muggy haze.  That was the day the repairman came to our house to check on the gas and told us that our “central heating was in fine working condition.” Central heating? Mississippi? The idea of additional, intentional heat made me want to cry salty, sweaty tears.

Y’all: we switched on that heat over a week ago.  People here started pulling out their leather boots and sweaters when nighttime lows hit the mid 60s. I waited maybe another 5 degrees. Anyways, the point is that to the astonishment of my housemates (who didn’t even pack their coats) and I, Mississippi gets cold. Or, for all of you in actual cold climates, let me rephrase: it gets chilly. And to celebrate the late arrival of these autumnal temps, we threw a backyard housewarming party featuring sweaters, a bonfire, hot cider with whiskey, and this homemade spiced applesauce cake.

FoodCorps JXN gals love free espresso.

FoodCorps JXN gals love free espresso.

The cool weather has been refreshing, though, and it’s certainly made lessons in the garden more enjoyable. For farm to school week, I invited Jonathan Picarsic, gardener and owner of the local farm Amorphous Gardens, to come visit the school. It was a bigger hit than I expected; the kids adored the turkey and chickens that he brought, and it gave everyone an opportunity to check out our growing garden.  The day after Jonathan came to the school, I asked my 6 year old class what their favorite part of the farm visit was. One little girl blurted out “the pigs!!!” (There were no pigs.) Small steps, people.

Jonathan and the turkey. (Ssshhh, don't tell anyone that she'll be eaten in a few weeks)

Jonathan and the turkey. (Ssshhh, don’t tell anyone that she’ll soon be eaten)

Soft little chick. Check out our greens in the background!

Soft little chick. Check out our greens growing in the background!

Hi, little guy.

Hi little guy.

In addition to some overly creative imaginations, my youngest class is by far the most adventurous in terms of eating. In preparation for our farm to school visit, I had bought a box of Amorphous Gardens produce that contained some beautiful leafy kale, lemon basil, green onions, radishes, and different heirloom varieties of mustard greens. I used the greens in a simple kale salad, and had different toppings, or “pizzaz,” for the 6 year olds to add themselves. When I brought the salad into the classroom, the teacher looked at me incredulously and asked: “Do you actually eat that stuff?!” Oh, if only she could see what goes on in our kitchen at home….but that’s another story. To my surprise and the teacher’s, the students devoured their salads, even though their eyes widened in spicy surprise when they tasted the radishes.

My oldest class isn’t quite as brave when it comes to trying new things, but they’re definitely getting there. The Asian greens and lettuce that we planted over a month ago is ready to cut, so tomorrow we’ll be making a salad together in the garden.

And I’m giving in (kind of) to the popular request: “Can we have ranch?” We’ll be making our own healthy version! [insert evil healthy food laugh]