Denise Johnson has a winning strategy for getting kids to eat their vegetables.
It’s simple as pie. Or, in this case, muffins. Johnson, the Lawrence school district’s assistant director of health and wellness, tells a cafeteria full of third-graders to add what looks like a cup’s worth of spinach into their mixing bowls.
Weirdly, they don’t seem too put off by the idea of green, nutrient-packed muffins.
“When they grow it and they make it, they eat it,” Johnson said later that Friday, explaining the success of the district’s Farm 2 School program.
Connecting kids to their food — from planting to harvesting to cooking and eating — is a core tenet of the U.S. Department of Agriculture initiative, known for its school gardens and food-purchasing partnerships between schools and local farmers. The Lawrence school district, an early adapter of the program, recently added cooking classes to its Farm 2 School curriculum.
The lessons, funded through a recent “Serving Up MyPlate” grant from the Kansas State Department of Education, will be implemented across all third-grade classrooms in the Lawrence district’s 14 elementary schools.
Hillcrest was only the second school to receive a visit from the district’s Farm 2 School team this semester, said Jennie Lazarus, outdoor education supervisor for Lawrence Public Schools.
“Farm 2 School is about the nutritional education and us working with natural sugars in cooking lessons,” said Johnson, who also teaches students how to read nutrition labels as part of the unit.
The concept of substituting processed sugar (the kind that comes from sugar cane or sugar beets) for natural sugars, such as those found in fruits, for instance, was brand-new to most of the kids at Hillcrest.
Julia Johnson, 8, was skeptical at first of last Friday’s recipe, which called for banana, applesauce and maple syrup in place of regular granulated sugar.
Watching the muffin batter spin round and round in the food processor, Julia said, reminded her of guacamole. (The adults in the room thought it looked a bit more like pesto.)
“We’re eating that?” she asked, gesturing to the green mixture. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
Max Borchardt, Julia’s classmate, was similarly new to the process.
“I’ve done cooking at my house before, but nothing like this,” the 9-year-old said.
But Max also said he’d learned how to apply classroom skills in a broader setting, using fractions and measurements and the importance of following directions.
And the so-called “monster muffins,” loaded with vitamins, dietary fiber, zinc and protassium? The kids didn’t seem to have a problem gobbling them all down.
Eventually, Lazarus and Johnson hope to deliver their cooking classes to all 900 third-graders in the district this spring. The district aims to add different grade level-based “Farm 2 School” experience each year, Lazarus said, joining existing programming like farm tours for seventh-graders and interactive “Body Venture” field trips for second-graders.
“When they have something that’s actionable,” Lazarus said, “whether it’s digging in the garden or something hands-on like cooking, it really allows them to take ownership of their health and education."