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You mean, French fries aren’t a veggie?

Local activists are bringing food education to our schools

Second grade students at JV Forrestal Elementary in Beacon participate in the Chef in the Classroom program with chef interns from the Culinary Institute of America. Carrots were the featured vegetable for the day.

There are only so many opportunities in the day for us to educate our growing children about the importance of good food choices. When they’re babies, they have to eat what we serve them. But once they get older and go to school, the game changes.

As they grow older, our children enter a landscape in which sugar, fat and artificially manufactured everything can be consumed without supervision. Mom and Dad don’t have a shot at winning this round of the parenting game (or do we?)

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“Most kids eat the vast majority of their calories in school,” notes Sandy McKelvey, a mom of two who lives in Cold Spring and is an advocate of local foods in local schools. “But we have more control over what those calories are comprised of than we might think.”

In fact, if your child has come home from school requesting a kale salad, you probably have McKelvey and other grassroots mom-activists in the region to thank for that development. Through persistence and the parenting grapevine, she has helped introduce locally grown foods into schools throughout the Hudson Valley.

Her initiative, Hudson Valley Farm to School, has humble roots. It began as a small, personal project after a discussion about cafeteria food with a fellow member of her Community Supported Agriculture share from Common Grounds.

“I was talking with another member about the depressing concept of cafeteria food,” says McKelvey. “He had just moved here from Michigan and he told me to research farm to school, which is really robust in Michigan. I started looking into it and I was fascinated by the potential.”

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With her daughter Joia in kindergarten at the time, McKelvey was eager to plant the seeds of healthy eating early.

“I think schools have a responsibility to educate children about responsible food choices and make sure that they have healthy options,” McKelvey said. “Luckily, I found that schools agree. It’s just a matter of implementing it and finding cost-effective ways to get good, local food in the cafeterias.”

McKelvey found a willing partner in her daughter’s school, Haldane Elementary in Cold Spring. She joined their wellness committee, made formal presentations to the powers that be about the links between nutrition and scholastic achievement, and she persisted tirelessly in her goal to get better food in her daughter’s school. Before she knew it, the Hudson Valley Farm to School initiative was born, and her mission reached schools throughout the region.

Second grade students at JV Forrestal Elementary in Beacon participate in the Chef in the Classroom program.

“By 2010, we started a small program with chefs coming to the school to do demos of healthy food,” she says. “Initially, we had a very small grant, but when teachers saw how much the kids loved the demos, everyone wanted them. And because the program was small to begin with, we learned very quickly. Now the program is in every classroom, the children learn about featured vegetables on an academic level — its nutritional profile, the country it originates from — in addition to creating dishes with it.”

Students from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park visit Haldane to help children make recipes from locally grown vegetables, using as many items pulled from the school garden as possible.

The school cafeteria then recreates the dish the chefs and students make together and serve it in their school lunch. McKelvey recruited Hudson Valley Seeds to donate seeds to the students’ gardens, farmers from Common Grounds to come in and talk to students about where their food really comes from and has arranged seasonal donations from Glynwood Farm that provide a do-it-yourself salad bar that the kids adore.

Fourth grade students at Haldane Elementary in Cold Spring participate in the Chef in the Classroom program with chef interns from the Culinary Institute of America. Butternut squash was the featured vegetable for the day. 

“Our kids look up to the CIA students as rock stars,” McKelvey says. “They all watch the Food Network and they see these kids, who are just 10 or 15 years older than them, making these amazing dishes and they’re inspired. I get emails and phone calls from parents all the time telling me about how their sons and daughters are now obsessed with kale and beets after initially refusing to even try them at home!”

Following the pilot program, HVFS soon became a small consulting and philanthropic business, helping the Garrison and Beacon school districts create their own hands-on nutrition programs and getting local farm produce and dairy into schools in the region.

Bringing locally grown, fresh foods into city and rural school cafeterias and getting children to understand that french fries are not the only delicious veggie (and no, they don’t come out of the ground like that), helps ensure our children’s health and also the vibrancy of our local economies, McKelvey says.

Kathleen Willcox is a freelance writer and mother of 2-year-old twins. She lives with her family in Schenectady.

Sandy McKelvey and her daughter, Joia.