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Published: Saturday, 6/9/2007

Veggie U: Growing good eating habits

BY KATHIE SMITH
BLADE FOOD EDITOR
Toth Elementary student Michael Covyaw studies a micro vegtable grown by a Huron, Ohio greenhouse. Toth Elementary student Michael Covyaw studies a micro vegtable grown by a Huron, Ohio greenhouse.
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Veggie U is like having a field trip without having to leave the elementary school, says Marcia Little, who taught Toth Elementary s three fourth-grade classes the agriculture-based program as part of the science curriculum in Perrysburg this spring.

Toth was among the first schools in northwest Ohio to teach the curriculum, although it has been used by more than 600 classrooms in 21 states since it was launched in 2004 by the Culinary Vegetable Institute in Milan, Ohio.

The science program found its way to Toth thanks to funding from the Country Garden Club of Perrysburg with dedicated gardeners like Gretchen Downs. The cost of the supplies is $400 per class.

Sophia Franck chooses stripe beet to sample. Sophia Franck chooses stripe beet to sample.
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Veggie U is the Culinary Vegetable Institute s nonprofit organization dedicated to making fourth-graders across the country more aware of good nutrition and eating habits through a five-week science curriculum. It introduces students to vegetables by sending a sample box that they can taste, smell, and see. Then the students plant seeds in four types of soil and watch the vegetables and lettuce grow. A worm farm also teaches sustainable agriculture. At the end of the program, the lettuce is harvested and a Salad Celebration is held.

The program provides a unique connection between agriculture, good nutrition, and the culinary arts. The idea is that teaching children about the many facets of vegetables growing, nutrition, cooking will lead them to eat more veggies. And increased vegetable consumption will lead to better health and reduced risk for chronic diseases.

Toth s program began in mid-April when Mrs. Little unpacked the box of vegetables for the students to see and taste. The veggies came from the Chef s Garden, a farm that grows produce through sustainable agriculture for chefs in three-star and above restaurants.

There were popcorn shoots that taste sweet, watermelon radish, a different color carrot, a blue potato, and a candy stripe beet. The variety of vegetables depends upon the season, says Debra Nickoloff, education coordinator for Veggie U.

Teacher Marcia Little writes names of micro greens. Teacher Marcia Little writes names of micro greens.
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As Mrs. Little passed out the veggies she told the fourth-graders the color may fool you. Then the students tasted microgreens and noted the colors, texture, and flavors on their papers. This introduced vegetables to some children who don t eat them.

Students studied the leaves of plants. They discovered that micro anise tasted almost like black jelly beans.

I really liked when we tried exotic food especially the popcorn shoots, says Duncan Wesley, 10, son of Rachel Wesley and John Wesley. The fourth-grader really likes vegetables. I grew up having vegetables because my dad owns a restaurant. I go with my mom to the farmers market.

By the second week students were planting seeds. We planted pea seeds in four types of material: sand, potting soil, compost, and field soil, said Mrs. Little. The root view box had four compartments with plexiglass sides. The students planted the same variety of pea seeds at different depths to see how the soil acts. The idea was to see in which soil the pea seeds would grow the best.

Colton Wagner, front, and Sam Hooper look at worm farms. Colton Wagner, front, and Sam Hooper look at worm farms.
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For Macie Downs, who is a student in Mrs. Little s class, growing the seeds in four mediums was very interesting, said her grandmother, Mrs. Downs. The idea of changing a variable was a good science learning.

In addition, the students planted squash and created a worm farm. We use California red worms, says Ms. Nickoloff. These are the composting kings. They eat their body weight in one day.

By April 25, the students were planting trays with tiny lettuce seeds and also a tray of mystery seeds. Growing the plants was fun, says Elizabeth Palmer, 10, daughter of Kim and Craig Palmer. Seeing what the seeds looked like was fun. Some were very tiny.

With a video demonstration by Farmer (Bob) Jones of the Chef s Garden, students watched step-by-step what they were to do. Imagine 30 students at a time, one very well-organized teacher, and five to six tables of supplies.

The video explained that the best way to plant seeds in trays is to use clear plastic liners topped with two pieces of plastic pipe so it keeps the air flowing. A dark tray (flat) is placed on top and then the soil is poured into the dark flat and leveled with a ruler. Don t pack soil in the field because it drives out the oxygen, they were told. Little things can be more important than big things. Details count.

A ruler and pencil marked out the rows, 10 rows to a tray, two inches apart. Students working in their groups followed the directions. You don t want the seed to be too deep. You need light for the seed to germinate, said Farmer Jones about planting red lettuce and green lettuce.

Picking up one seed at a time was a challenge for students who were directed to push each seed into the soil lightly. Next they topped the tray with a coating of vermiculite to keep the seeds dry. Then they watered the trays, being careful not to overwater. The only time you want the ground saturated is the first day it is watered.

A layer of plastic covered the top of each tray to keep moisture from evaporating and to increase the temperature, but you don t want it over 85 degrees. Lettuce will germinate between 45 and 85 degrees. When you first see it germinating, remove the plastic, making sure you keep enough moisture, Farmer Jones said on the video.

The trays of mystery vegetable seeds were similarly grown. As the days progressed, the students tried to guess the mystery vegetables. (At the Salad Celebration, it was revealed that the little plants were radishes, peas, beans, corn, arugula, and cilantro.)

This was one of Duncan Wesley s favorite parts of the program. When we had to guess what the mystery seeds were, I got three out of seven right, he says. It was a lot of fun. I also liked when we made the worm farms.

By May 21, the lettuce needed to be harvested. A Salad Celebration was planned for the 72 fourth-graders, their parents, and guests such as Mrs. Downs and other members of the garden club. More than 150 attended the buffet of favorite salads brought by the students parents. On the tables were little plates of homegrown lettuce and the mystery plants.

It s amazing how excited kids can get about salads. Some students went back to the salad table for seconds and thirds with their little brothers and sisters in tow.

I thought all the salads were good, said Elizabeth Palmer, whose mother Kim made a Betty Salad with spinach for the Salad Celebration. I tried at least five salads. Mrs. Palmer says her daughter is eating more salad at home now.

And Duncan Wesley estimates he tried 10 of the salads with his favorite being the watermelon salad served in a hollowed-out watermelon.

At the program, fourth-grade students gave a presentation explaining the highlights of Veggie U including learning about the plant parts, photosynthesis, and how earth worms help the soil.

A Vegetable Idol play written by Mrs. Little featured judges Paula Broccoli, Simon Cauliflower, and Randy Carrotson who held auditions for Stewart Strawberries, who oozed antioxidants. Who could help but judge between Carlotta Carrot and Carmen Chocolate Cake? The kids had a ball. In Nutritionland a student must decide between Lynn Lettuce or Anderson Applebutter.

Based on surveys held before and after the five-week Veggie U, Mrs. Little said that attitudes about vegetables held by the fourth-grade students improved after the program.

The program addresses the state standards for science, and it is a way for the children to learn in a hands-on way which is motivating to children to retain that information, said Toth Elementary School Principal Beth Christoff. Among the science standards are how plants grow and comparing the life cycles of plants.

Since the Country Garden Club of Perrysburg funded 16 classrooms for the Veggie U program, the remaining 13 classrooms will begin the program next fall at the other elementary schools in Perrysburg.

For more information about Veggie U, contact the Culinary Vegetable Institute at 419-499-7500 or check www.veggieu.org.

Kathie Smith is The Blade s food editor. Contact her at food@theblade.com or 419-724-6155.



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