Eat your vegetables! It’s a parent’s cry that echoes through the ages. But in a culture dominated by fast food and convenience, it’s a message many children never absorb. And with growing rates of obesity and other nutrition-related conditions, there’s an increasing awareness of the importance of diet and its relation to the health of individuals and society. Veggie U, a not-for-profit program of Milan, Ohio’s Culinary Vegetable Institute, aims to meet these needs by filling a gap left by traditional classrooms.
Veggie U is a five-week program that takes the place of a standard fourth-grade science curriculum, in which children learn to grow and cook their own vegetables. The $450 cost of the program provides teachers with a kit that includes soil, seeds, grow lights, live worms and boxes which give children a view of the roots of growing plants.
The program was the creation of CVI founding father Bob Jones, who has been a farmer for nearly 50 years at The Chef’s Garden in Milan, Ohio (see Toledo City Paper’s feature on The Chef’s Garden at www.toledocitypaper.com) and of the chefs who patronize and work at the Institute. Barb Jones, Bob’s wife, who runs the program says, “We had a number of chefs who said ‘It’s time for us to give back. What can we do?’ And my husband jumped on it.” Jones convened a panel of teachers who spent 18 months developing a curriculum to meet all state and federal standards.
Many children, especially in urban environments, have no direct experience of how plants grow, and only the vaguest idea of where their food comes from. Veggie U offers them a chance to feel the soil with their own hands and watch crops they planted themselves grow into something they can cook and eat. Students learn about plant anatomy, photosynthesis, composting, soils and nutrition. By observing and recording the growth of their crops, they learn the basics of the scientific method. By keeping journals about their progress, they hone their writing skills — and by the end of the program, they’ve learned enough to create a feast which they can share with family and friends.
“This teaches everything they would have gotten in a book,” Barb Jones says, “but it’s hands-on.” And the sense of accomplishment students gain by (literally) getting their hands dirty is something that can’t be measured.
Veggie U has made its way into local elementaries, including many Toledo Public, Perrysburg and Maumee schools. But the program is always looking for sponsors to help defray the cost for cash-strapped schools and teachers. Call 419-499-7500 for more info, or see www.veggieu.org.