Tuesday May 21, 2013 | 06:19 AM

In June 2010 Chef Kathy Gunst was invited to The White House to learn more about First Lady Michelle Obama’s "Chefs Move to Schools" iniative, part of the Let’s Move program, run through the U.S. Department of Agriculture. While in Washington, D.C. she was inspired by the First Lady’s speech (you can read in its entirety here) suggesting what could happen if each of the 500 chefs present returned home and worked within their community to foster an environment that supports healthy choices e.g. providing healthier foods in schools. By getting involved, Gunst and those like her could help change the face of childhood obesity and help ensure a healthy future for this nation’s children. Gunst returned home determined to get involved locally.

She reached out to (former) Principal Vicki Stewart, of Central Elementary School in South Berwick, Maine and along with Kate Smith, a music teacher at the school, began formulating what would be known as The Outdoor Classroom and Garden Project.

Established in the fall of 2010, the program is bringing more fresh, locally produced food to students at Central Elementary and enhancing their agriculture education. By building a hoop house, students can grow food eight to nine months of the year. When the program planted peach trees and raspberry bushes (donated by local nurseries) the community came out to help.

Gunst has cooked with every child in the school, from pre-kindergarten through third grade. One day the kids harvested kale and made kale chips, with harvested Swiss chard they made tacos.

On Thursday, June 6th, the elementary school‘s cafeteria will sell produce grown by students. Local farms may contribute.

Q&A with Kathy Gunst

Through the program (Outdoor Classroom), how do you work at helping kids appreciate the connection between their food and the people who produce it? What has the impact been? Was there a memorable result?

The whole point of the program is to teach kids that food grows from the ground up, not in the grocery store. We strive to teach the kids about the joys of healthy eating. For instance I made smoothies recently with the Pre-K and Kindergarteners using a variety of local fruit and some exotic fruits. We learned about the concept of locally grown food and why it's better. And we learned that you don't need sugar to eat something sweet and delicious. The kids were so into creating their own recipes for smoothies and seeing how sweet and delicious blended fruit and yogurt and fruit juice can be--without a speck of processed sugar.

The connection is obviously made when kids plant a seed in dirt and water it and watch it grow. They then harvest the food and I come into school and we cook it. The entire cycle happens by the kids doing the "work" and reaping the rewards. There is no more direct lesson than that!

What is on the horizon for the project? Goals for the future?

The future of this program is to grow more food, get more parents and teachers involved, and continue the good work that had been started these last few years. It's been deeply rewarding to watch kids who think they "hate" certain fruits and vegetables and watch them turn on to the glories of good, freshly grown food. We have also slowly changed some of the food served in the cafeteria. The goal is to integrate the food grown in the hoop house with the food served in the cafeteria. This is more of a long-term goal and one everyone at the school seems open to and excited about.

What challenges did you face, if any, when you developed the program?

The challenge is always finding the funds and keeping the enthusiasm going. Although with teachers like Kate Smith and others there is no fear this program will die.

If you would like to support The Outdoor Classroom in South Berwick, Maine please contact Kate Smith at Central Elementary School. If you are interested in volunteering, please contact Central School at (207) 384-2333, or email Central School’s principal, Nina D”Aran, at nina.daran@rsu35.org

For more information on the program, and to follow activities check out this site

In addition to the White House’s Let’s Move Initiative, the National Farm to School Network and Food Corps offer opportunities to get involved in building an environment for healthier kids in Maine. 

About this Blog

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About the Author

Sharon Kitchens is a neo-homesteader learning the ins and outs of country living by luck and pluck and a lot of expert advice. She writes about bees for The Huffington Post and stuff she loves on her personal blog, deliciousmusings.com.

When she is not writing, she enjoys edible gardening, reading books on food and/or thinking about food, hanging out by her beehives and patiently tracking down her chickens in the woods behind her old farmhouse.

In her blog, Sharon profiles farm families, reports on farm-based education and internships, conducts Q&A's with master beekeepers, offers tips on picking a CSA, and much more.

Sharon can be contacted at kitchens.sharon@gmail.com or on Twitter @deliciousmusing.

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