Growing food, growing minds

Chef brigade: A lineup of all-star chefs took over Tupelo Honey South to cook a multicourse meal to help raise money for the Amazing Learning Garden at Estes. The event raised approximately $35,000. Photo by Camilla Calnan photography

Educational gardens and cooking classes for kids are blooming all over town. Part of the reason is that Michelle Obama's influence runs deep in Buncombe County — root-deep. Her Chefs Move to Schools program, a facet of her Let's Move campaign, has caught the attention of a healthy handful of influential locals. It's sparked enough interest within Buncombe County to lead to the planting of several gardens and the teaching of cooking classes in schools, recruiting notables like Katie and Elizabeth Button of Cúrate, chef Denny Trantham of the Blue Ridge Dining Room at the Grove Park Inn, Brian Sonoskus of Tupelo Honey Café and others.

A renewed interest in hands-on food learning seems to have worked its way into area lesson plans after Laurey Masterton, owner of Laurey's Catering and Gourmet To-Go, was invited to the White House last year to hear about the first lady's aim to put a chef into each school in the U.S. After returning to Asheville, Masterton held a summit, inviting well-known chefs and food professionals from all over Buncombe to inspire them with what she’d learned.

The initial goal of the program, says Masterton, is not to change the food served within the cafeteria, but to influence the way that children think about eating in general. The plan is to teach children about real food, using real chefs in classrooms, not battered health texts and outmoded lessons with little practical application. The hope is that the hands-on approach will not only impact the students’ ability to learn, but their health as well — and maybe even how their parents think about food and its role in childhood development altogether.

Sonoskus was present at Masterton's summit, and went on to "adopt" Estes Elementary School in south Asheville.

The parents and teachers of the children of Estes Elementary seem especially energized by the partnership. The school's PTA recently partnered with Tupelo Honey, B.B. Barns and Sitework Studios to raise money for the installation of an 8,000-square-foot learning garden on school grounds — the Amazing Learning Garden at Estes, as it is formally known.

The proposed garden will feature a variety of learning tools, including a human sundial and a rain garden. The hope is that the effort will augment students’ exposure to a variety of disciplines, including math, environmental studies and nutrition, just for starters.

In late March, Tupelo Honey South featured a multi-ourse dinner cooked by all-star chefs in an effort to raise money for the garden project. The menu for the event was a Southern-tinged collaboration between Sonoskus (who, with members of his staff, has been working with Estes students over the past several months) and seven other North Carolina celebrity chefs.
Chef Walter Royal of the Angus Barn in Raleigh was among the talent feeding the Estes supporters that evening. Royal defeated Cat Cora in 2006 on Iron Chef America, which is no small feat. The jovial chef has been recognized by James Beard (Rising Star award) and Restaurant Guild International (Five-star Chef of the Year). By the end of the evening, Royal was so struck by the outpouring of enthusiasm for the garden project that he offered a private dinner in his wine cellar — complete with limousine transport — in support of the program.

The Tupelo fundraiser brought in $35,000 from private donations — approximately half of the total price tag for the building of the garden and its maintenance. Organizers say that $18,000 is coming from Mission Children’s Hospitals and the rest of what the project needs to will come from private sponsors and further fundraising efforts.

For a school with approximately 800 students, $70,000 may seem like a hefty price tag for a garden. You get what you pay for: the Estes garden is designed to be sustainable for 20 to 25 years. Steve Frabitore, owner of Tupelo Honey Café, and members of his staff have also committed to providing maintenance for the garden for its first five years.

Should the Estes Garden serve as a viable prototype that can be replicated nationwide, it stands to eventually benefit a wide range of children. To start, the group, with the assistance of Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project and Mission Children's Hospital, plan to build five more gardens using the Estes model as a prototype — starting with the schools that are proven to have the most need, which may be hard to measure.

"Children aren't connecting with their food right now," says Emily Jackson, program director for Growing Minds, an ASAP program that aims to link farms and schools. That disconnect occurs across all ages and economic brackets, she says.

"We see school gardens as an instructional tool," says Jackson. "Whether it's in the classroom, the garden or the farm, hearing about and seeing local food helps make it a stronger educational tool for children,” she says. The garden venture is a way to facilitate a connection between the food community and the community at large.

"What we're trying to show with this school is, 'See how engaged this makes this community? See how excited these parents and the principal and teachers are?’" says Jackson. "And it's just about getting kids to eat locally grown food. Isn't that great?"

Growing Minds is working with local company Sow True Seed to provide seeds for the Estes garden as well other existing and planned gardens. They also provide lesson plans and children's literature about food and school garden training for facilitators. "That's what we do. Once something like this happens that is kind of big, we're the sustainers of it,” says Jackson. “How do you keep the teachers involved, how do you keep things going to these schools and these students … We just want to make sure that it’s integrated with the curriculum so that it's sustainable for the teachers to work with."

Mission Children’s Hospital hopes that the effort is sustainable as well, which is why the health center has committed to be the title sponsor, offering $18,000 per year for five years, as other gardens are built using Estes as a model.

"This is really a very good fit for us in so many ways," says Janet Moore, director of web services and marketing for Mission Health System. "One of the reasons that we're doing this is because we think that this is a really innovative model that could be replicated in other communities. Mission has quite a history of innovation when it comes to health."

The Asheville garden model could come to be an innovative prototype that other schools adopt, Moore says. “This is a great way to teach children about healthy eating and supporting that farm-to-table movement that has become so much a part of Asheville's culture. And all of this, of course, is done with the goal of reducing childhood obesity. And when you have the chefs going in and teaching the children how to prepare the food, it's an amazing package."

Moore says that, as the gardens are developed, more chefs from the local restaurant community will be contacted to get involved with the schools to show the children what to do with those growing veggies — meaning that Masterton’s plan may have come full circle.

Moore agrees. "Mission’s involvement with Laurey Masterton goes way back. I think Laurey deserves a lot of credit for, no pun intended, planting the seed, because this has been a passion of hers for a while,” she says.

“[California chef] Alice Waters has been a real inspiration to Laurey, and this is a lot of what Alice did. Laurey really was the first person to bring this to Asheville and say, 'You know what? We can do this here.'”

For her part, Masterton says she hopes that the resources for other gardens benefit more than just a select few schools. "Any project that benefits children in our area — children anywhere for that matter — is a good thing,” she says. “And if a garden can be built that is a model garden for other people to replicate, that's awesome," says Masterton. "My work has been trying to get attention to all the children in Buncombe County," says Masterton.

"Alice Waters built one beautiful garden in California and there are a few other gardens based on that one across the United States. It would be great if that garden existed everywhere," she says. "There's 105,000 (actually, it’s over 130,000, K-12) schools in the United States, and they all deserve one."

To give to the Estes Garden, visit amazinggardenoflearning.chipin.com. To find out how to contribute to programs benefitting schools in the rest of Buncombe county and throughout WNC, visit growing-minds.org.

— Mackensy Lunsford can be reached at food@mountainx.com

who: Red June, with Eliza Lynn
where: The Grey Eagle
when: Saturday, Sept. 25 (7 p.m. doors, 8:30 p.m. show. $10. thegreyeagle.com)

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