BOULDER – Natalie Condon smiled as young consumers of her Lafayette farm’s winter squash harvest compared notes about the vegetable’s texture and taste.
“It’s orange; it tastes like orange,” said a kindergartner at Columbine Elementary School in Boulder. “It’s squishy in my mouth,” said a classmate.
Condon couldn’t have been happier with the reviews. “This is wonderful for us and the kids,” she said. “This builds a real connection to the food that they eat. A lot of kids don’t know where their food is grown. And this helps change that.”
Condon is part of a national movement started in 2009 by Chef Ann Cooper aimed at helping schools get access to fresh, healthful food. Cooper began the Chef Ann Foundation to head-off a national obesity epidemic among school kids and to ensure they avoid diet-related diseases.
“We just wanted to try and make sure every kid has access to fresh and from-scratch meals,” said Cooper, who also is also director of Food Services for the Boulder Valley School District.
A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, Cooper has 40 years of experience as a chef, including 17 years in school food programs. She speaks nationally about efforts to change how school districts feed students.
Cooper uses programs such as Project Produce to provide tools, training, resources and funding to alter school lunches so they offer more fresh alternatives. So far, the Chef Ann Foundation has reached more than 7,000 schools and 2.6 million children in all 50 states.
In Colorado, 23 schools and 12,771 students have participated in Project Produce, which provides $2,500 grants through its partner Healthy Skoop to help kids better understand that food comes from local farms and not only from the supermarket. Local farmers are enlisted to help.
Centennial Elementary in Denver last year put on a Wellness Fair where students penned fruit and vegetable poems, recipe books and artworks.
At Charles Hay World School in Englewood, once-a-month tastings were offered for vegetables that are easily found in stores but might not be considered a kid’s favorite.
“Students not only learn about healthy foods, they are able to smell, taste and touch the fruits and vegetables they are learning about,” said Cooper.
In November, beets were offered for a tasting at the Flagstaff Academy in Longmont.
At Columbine Elementary School, squash was on the menu, courtesy of the Condons, who run Isabelle Farms.
“Some kids really like it; others don’t,” Cooper said. “But that’s OK. Tastes change as kids get older, and we just want to expose them to something different.”
Parent Krista Torvik said her second-grader has indulged in other Healthy Skoop tastings and came away with mixed feelings. “He’ll talk about what he ate, and sometimes he really enjoyed it. And other times didn’t even try it,” she said.
“But I tell him, ‘Well, at least thanks for thinking about it.’” she said. “Who knows? He may change his mind about these things as he gets older.”