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Program Teaches Milwaukee Kids to Grow, Prepare and Eat Fresh Fruits and Vegetables

Ann-Elise Henzl
MPS students trim kale leaves at the Hunger Task Force Farm in Franklin.

Some children are spending part of the summer at a farm, where they’re helping to grow fruits and vegetables. The premise of the program is that kids who know where food comes from – and how to prepare it – will become healthy adults.

Lauren Haska has a big job, because the kids know little about fruits and veggies in their natural state. She is the Hunger Task Force's educator and dietician at the Franklin farm.

Credit Ann-Elise Henzl
Lauren Haska, the educator and dietician at the Hunger Task Force Farm, greets excited students as they arrive

Haska recalls a former student who struggled to pull a carrot from the earth.

"It was a big one, and finally we pulled the carrot out, and she just looked at me and she was like, ‘Miss Lauren, this isn’t a carrot. They're small, they’re short, they’re really orange, and they usually come out of a bag,’” Haska says.

As the school bus arrives, about 20 children, ages 9 and 10, spill from the vehicle. They line up for a count, then sprint to the farm’s raised garden beds. One boy shares what he’s learned so far about growing things.

“You have to make sure that the soil is good for the plant and not have bad stuff in it,” he says.

They’ve also learned about the importance of weeding. Mr. Jeff has them pull a few, then he shows them how to use shears to gingerly harvest kale. They’ll eat some of it later. One boy is eager to cut the kale, but less enthusiastic about sampling it. He says he doesn’t like it – yet admits he’s never actually tried the veggie.

Credit Ann-Elise Henzl
Kids race to garden beds, to begin the day’s activities

Next, the pint-sized gardeners head to another bed where they discover a curious-looking plant. It’s about the size of a softball with huge leaves. The kids yell “look at that big thing!” Mr. Jeff asks if anyone knows what it is. One boy guesses it’s lettuce. Mr.  Jeff suggests they look for a sign on a stake, which bears the plant’s name. They try to sound out the unfamiliar word, until he tells them the plant is kohlrabi. Then he gives them the OK to harvest by yanking the kohlrabi from the soil. The kids shout with glee as they extract the big plant, then hold them overhead like trophies.

Credit Ann-Elise Henzl
A girl celebrates the kohlrabi she's pulled from the ground, as Mr. Jeff monitors the harvest

After the harvest is complete, the kids scurry to the farm’s kitchen. They wash up and begin turning kale leaves into savory chips. The students wash their leaves and use a salad spinner to dry them. Then they massage in seasonings and olive oil. One boy comments that he can feel the texture of the garlic and cayenne pepper, while massaging the leaves. The kids cook the chips, then eat them for a snack. A girl says she likes the chips. She says the flavor starts out “really sour,” but then turns salty and sweet. The children get to take home the recipe and a kids’ cookbook in hopes it motivates them to prepare healthy food.

The lesson seems to have worked for a couple of boys here. This is their second summer. They still remember last year’s class. One student says he learned how to make fruit salad with dressing. Another says one of his favorites was the smoothie recipe, which features blueberries, raspberries and strawberries.

Such comments sound like progress to the farm’s educator, Lauren Haska. “I would like to think so. I think that this is definitely a process, when it comes to learning about nutrition,” Haska says.

Judging from the kids’ enthusiastic response to the class, it appears they already realize the joy gardening can bring.

Credit Ann-Elise Henzl
A boy massages olive oil and spices into kale leaves

Ann-Elise is WUWM's news director.