Bringing food to life: Grow Food’s free cooking class for kids going strong, albeit on a screen

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  • Holland Pomputius, 9, of Florence cuts up chives for a black bean burger and potato fries meal she is preparing in a Grow Food Cooks class with Ellena Baum on Tuesday. Baum, on screen, is the Land and Community Education Coordinator at Grow Food Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Holland Pomputius, 9, prepares to drizzle olive oil over some oven potato fries during a Grow Food Cooks online cooking class at her Florence home on Tuesday, April 27, 2021. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Ellena Baum, Land and Community Education Coordinator at Grow Food Northampton, holds up a chive on screen for participants in a Grow Food Cooks cooking class to see on Tuesday, April 27, 2021. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Holland Pomputius, 9, of Florence asks a question of Ellena Baum during a Grow Food Cooks online cooking class with other youth on Tuesday, April 27, 2021. Baum is the Land and Community Education Coordinator at Grow Food Northampton. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Holland Pomputius, 9, of Florence prepares oven potato fries during a Grow Food Cooks online cooking class with other youth led by Ellena Baum of Grow Food Northampton on Tuesday, April 27, 2021. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Holland checks in with Baum, her instructor, as she makes a black bean burger and oven potato fries meal in her kitchen. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

For the Gazette
Published: 4/29/2021 12:24:22 PM

Back before the plague, I used to volunteer in my son’s first-grade class at Leeds Elementary School on Fridays. This was a strenuous proposition — a roomful of high-spirited 6- and 7-year-olds bursting with end-of-the-week energy meant that I often went home and had to lie down for a while in a dark room.

The very best Fridays, however, were the ones when the Grow Food Kids program arrived with its cooking lesson cart, complete with kale and apples and knives for all. Then there was no question of trying to make kids sit on the rug or pay attention to the reading lesson on the smart screen; all the kids were automatically riveted by the prospect of making something edible, and learning something applied.

Over the course of the winter, they made kale and apple salad; they made butter; they made maple butternut squash pudding. It almost didn’t matter what recipe they made. The act of making food centered their energy in a way that was different from the feeling around any other activity they did in the classroom.

The Grow Food Kids teacher, Ellena Baum, was magic as well. Her patience and her kind, genuine interest in the kids’ thoughts about all things vegetal and edible — what a fruit is, where maple syrup comes from, whether they’d ever tried kale — made Fridays a much-anticipated event in Room 109.

Fast-forward a couple of years to March 2021, and the Grow Food Kids lessons, like so many other things right now, look much different. Ellena is still there, along with the Grow Food Youth Program coordinator, Jules White, but both of them are smiling from their respective Zoom boxes while the screen grid slowly fills in with kids in their respective kitchens, peering at each other through their cameras.

It’s 3:30 p.m., after school, and everyone who signed up for the free class has received an individual cooking kit with a sweet potato, a small pepper, a tomato, a scallion, cilantro, a bag of spices, a can of black beans, and a pack of Mi Tierra corn tortillas, plus the link to the video class. After a brief check-in where everyone names their favorite fruit of the week, the class splits into two groups, and Ellena has everyone start chopping their sweet potatoes.

This is Grow Food Cooks, a pandemic version of the Grow Food Kids program, which began in 2016-17 as a state-funded pilot education program to teach kids about healthy eating and local food. Those two things — healthy eating and local food — are often approached separately, but Grow Food Kids goes a long way toward helping kids make connections between the two concepts. Not through worksheets about food groups or farms, but through the kind of joy and excitement that come from hands-on experience and personal connection.

In a normal year, Grow Food Kids conducts farm tours every fall and spring at Crimson & Clover Farm (or at Grow Food Northampton’s Giving Garden) for all Northampton public school kids in kindergarten through grade 3; and school cooking workshops throughout the winter for those same kids, so that the thread leading from farm to kitchen, while not overt, is to some degree built into the structure of the program.

Ellena also gives the kids more direct prompts during the cooking sessions, when she goes through the ingredient list in any given recipe and asks the students questions designed to help them think more deeply about the origins of what they’re eating: Can this grow here? Has anyone seen it growing? Has anyone picked it? And if it can’t grow here, why not? Where does it grow instead? 

Has anyone picked it? In a list of very thoughtful questions, that one, I think, gets very much to the heart of what Grow Food Kids does so well, which is not just teaching students about local food but helping them to develop a personal connection with the whole network of land and understanding and feelings that go with it.

You can have a intellectual understanding of why it’s important to eat local — carbon footprint, support farmers, etc. — but the head is a weaker engine than the heart. If you have visceral memories of picking warm sweet strawberries in June, or if your understanding of butternut squash is tied up with memories of having fun with your friends on the farm in second grade, then your relationship with your food becomes less about rote nutrition and more of an internal part of you.

And an affair of the heart is easier to advocate for and safeguard than an abstraction, which is why, as Ellena points out, Grow Food Northampton considers its school education program an integral part of enhancing food security and strengthening food systems for the future.

Playing the long game

Grow Food Kids, as you can see, is playing the long game when it comes to sustainability. But as a parent, I find that the value of the program lies equally in the other connections it fosters. While lurking in the Grow Food Cooks Zoom class, I was struck by how friendly the atmosphere on screen was, if the screen can be said to have an atmosphere.

Despite being muted and apart, all the kids were still following Ellena attentively, unmuting themselves readily to ask questions, and occasionally to show her funny things, like a timer that looked like a stand mixer.

There was still a discussion about where things came from (the tomatoes they put in the salsa that day were grown in the Five College Farms greenhouses). Ellena asked them to smell their spice packets and tell her what they thought the spices were. There was a lot of emphasis on personal choice: You get to decide what spices to add to your black beans; you get to decide what part of the scallion you want to put in your salsa.

All of that might seem small, but in a year where kids have had pretty much zero agency in the turmoil of schools opening and closing and all other activities being canceled, those kinds of interactions and decisions are significant to them. And the fact that they then get to present their caregivers with a real meal at the end of each class is a point of pride for many.

Proud chefs

Lexi Walters Wright, whose son, Arlo, was part of the sweet potato and black bean taco class cohort, told me the weekly cooking classes have been the bright spot of their week so far this year.

“Arlo feels so super proud to prepare dinner each week for our family,” she said. “He ties on an apron and wants to prep, make and serve the meals with as little interaction from his dad and me as possible, and for the most part we’re glad to offer him the autonomy — we can hear from the screen how vigilant the instructors are about safety.”

Grow Food Kids gets this kind of parental feedback often — a testament to its quality and value to the community as a whole. While the program may have gotten its start with state funding, it’s been carried forward by a great deal of local support.

The classes are free, but many parents have donated to Grow Food Kids anyway. And during this past pandemic year, grants from the Northampton Education Foundation and generous donations from organizations including River Valley Co-op have kept the program running.

On the strength of such support and interest, Grow Food Kids is poised to expand its offerings in the near future. This summer, the program will be hosting some in-person outdoor cooking events for kids at the Giving Garden. Already it offers high school internships at the Garden, and plans to offer middle school internships next fall.

For older students, Grow Food Kids seeks to go a little deeper, hosting discussions on local food systems via health classes at Northampton High.

Ellena misses being able to interact with the kids in real space. But that foundational excitement about food is still there, even on screen, having been nurtured through the long pandemic winter by the flexibility and creativity of the Grow Food Kids staff.

I had to leave before the tacos were done, but if the intensity of the concentration in every separate Zoom box was any indication, those were probably the best tacos ever made in the history of mankind. I’m sure the kids thought they were.

Francie Lin is the food access coordinator for Grow Food Northampton. She can be reached at francie@growfoodnorthampton.org.




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