By Louisa Hufstader
In elementary schools from Yountville to American Canyon, thousands of little kids are eating their vegetables. Not only are these Napa Valley youngsters willingly choosing broccoli, kale and other wholesome produce not usually found in public school cafeterias, they are, through classroom “tasting kits,” meet-the-farmer videos and take-home bags of fresh food, learning how it’s grown and why it’s good for them as well as fun to eat.
Harvest of the Month
“The big idea is to get kids to know where their food comes from,” says Napa chef ,Elizabeth Skylar, whose Edible Education Napa Valley has partnered with the Napa County Farm Bureau to bring the “Harvest of the Month” program to more than 8,000 kids in all 19 elementary schools in the Napa Valley Unified School District.
After viewing a brief video profile; kale with “Farmer Thaddeus” of Capay Organics , the schoolchildren get a personal introduction to the crop-of-the-month: in this case, fresh kale salad prepared by Skylar They see it in my hand; they see me chop it up and make food with it,” Skylar says. And, then they eat it: You can see the smiling results in her snapshots on the Edible Education Napa Valley Facebook page.
Michelle Risso of the Farm Bureau’s, Agriculture in the Classroom program, which works with Skylar to present the monthly food spotlight at local schools, says the bureau’s goals include “increasing the intake of healthy fruits and vegetables by kids in the cafeterias” and finding markets for local growers.
State grant brings crops to cafeterias
Now, in its second year, Napa’s, Harvest of the Month is funded by a three-year, $250,000 grant from the California Department of Food and Agriculture, Risso says.
“We have many partners on this,” she added, naming the Napa County Office of Education, which wrote the grant application, as well as the county agricultural commissioner’s office and the Food Advisory Council.
The program got off to a strong start in its first year, “even … when we served broccoli,” Risso says.
“We gave tasting kits to teachers, and the cafeteria ran out of broccoli,” she said.
The task of cutting up and serving fresh fruits and veggies in the classroom has teachers “very excited,” Risso says.
“We’ve received tons of really good feedback on the tasting kits, which include bags of the month’s designated produce, newsletters with food information and nutrition facts and cutting boards and knives for the teachers,” Risso explains.
Most popular of all, she says, are the Farm Bureau’s Ag videos, which can also be viewed online at napafarmbureau.org/videos.html.
“Kids just love those,” Risso says.
Last year, most of the Harvest of the Month fruits and vegetables came from the Central Valley breadbaskets of Salinas and Fresno, but now “we’re trying to find them within 100 miles of Napa.”
Along with classroom tastings, the Harvest of the Month is also served in the schools’ cafeterias.
Inspired by Alice Waters
In addition to preparing and presenting the Harvest of the Month, Skylar also contracts with local school groups to present after-school, “garden to table” food and cooking classes around the Napa Valley.
“Inspired by the work of Alice Waters, and the Edible Schoolyard, Chef Elizabeth Skylar creates Garden and Farm–based, Culinary Nutrition Education Programs,” reads the short description on her Edible Education Napa Valley, Facebook page.
Skylar discovered her calling after the high-profile failure of Copia: The American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts in Napa.
“In the ill-fated year of 2008, I was senior culinary educator at Copia,” recalls Skylar, who has also taught at Ramekins and Silverado Cooking School.
After the bankrupt center closed its doors that November, she found herself “trying to figure out what was next,” before taking a subcontract to provide culinary, health education for children on Air Force bases in the United States.
“I liked doing it and, apparently, I have some aptitude in that area,” she says.
But, accustomed to life in Napa, where gastronomy is part of the ambient culture, Skylar wasn’t prepared for the scarcity of fresh, nutritious food for kids in the Air Force towns, where fast food and chain cuisine dominate the culinary landscape.
“We’re not feeding them very well and there are not a lot of options,” she says. “I didn’t realize how truly horrible it was.”
As she traveled from base to base, “the more I got involved, the more I realized what needed to be done, and it just took over,” Skylar says.
Back in Napa, “l went to Harvest Middle School and said ‘You have a garden and I’m a chef. Let’s talk,’” Skylar recalls.
Four years later, “I am still learning all the time,” she says. “I like to be in that position of constantly learning new stuff.”
In February, Skylar added another new skill to her toolkit: Crowdfunding. Inspired by Napa cyclist and open-space volunteer, Chino Yip’s “smoothie bike,” she mounted a donation campaign at fundrazr.com and, within five days, had received pledges for 75 percent of the $1,500 cost to have a similar, pedal-powered blender built for Edible Education.
“My plan is to take it around to the schools and use it as another part of the program to get kids excited about food,” she says.
Find out more about Edible Education Napa Valley online at edibleeducationnv.com and on Facebook at facebook.com/edibleeducationnapavalley. Visit the Napa County Farm Bureau at http://www.napafarmbureau.org