Moving and shaking

Earlier this year, Michele Obama presented her “Chefs Move to Schools” program, a branch of her "Let's Move!" campaign. The effort aims to teach younger school-age kids the benefits of real, unprocessed healthy food. To achieve this goal, chefs are recruited as resources to provide a hands-on learning experience for the students. Why make teachers prattle on about vitamins and minerals in health class when they can team up with food professionals to actually show kids how real food is grown and cooked — and how good it can taste?

Laurey Masterton, proprietor of Laurey's Catering and Gourmet-to-Go, is the chief local motivator behind the project, in conjunction with the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project. Area chefs have offered their support in the form of know-how and roll-up-your-sleeves involvement. ASAP is currently working with 37 chefs and volunteers, to pair them with 20 schools.

Dan Rattigan of the French Broad Chocolate Lounge, for example, taught local students how to make soup, right in the middle of a garden. Elizabeth and Katie Button, part of the team opening the tapas restaurant, Cúrate, will be working directly with Claxton Elementary 5th graders next year. Brian Sonoskus of Tupelo Honey plans to bring produce grown at the restaurant’s garden to local elementary schools.

It's hard not to get starry-eyed when faced with such an idea. It's easy to fawn over reports of children snacking on snap peas right from the plants, and get idealistic about the idea that food can change the world. Indeed, in the early summer, when Masterton returned from a trip to the White House to hear Michelle Obama speak about the program, she was full of verve — and her enthusiasm was infectious.

An impressive number of area chefs crowded Masterton's catering business to find out how they could help. Many at the standing-room-only meeting signed up to work with individual elementary schools. ASAP, a great local resource and champion of the WNC food scene (and frequent Xpress collaborator), was on hand to offer assistance in the form of school-to-chef liaisons and general information.

Since then, it's been largely up to the chefs to commit to the program (with the assistance of ASAP's Anna Littman and Masterton). It's also been up to the receiving school to meet chefs halfway, and even, in some cases, up the parents to help see it through. So how's that working out?

“I think it's going well," says Masterton. "But it's harder than I thought. It's easy to be one person involved with my class, and I'm still very devoted to [it]." Masterton says that delegating responsibilities is difficult on top of everything else that's buzzing around her. Plus, she says, "Not everyone is comfortable working with little kids. The good thing about ASAP is that they will teach chefs how to work with children,” she adds.

Diving in with the kids is the best course of action, she says. Rather than just talk "at" them about the benefits of eating healthy, let them season and taste the food. After all, “healthy” is such a buzz-kill word these days that a baby-carrot company has started a campaign to encourage kids to treat the tiny veggies like "junk food." “[Kids] don't really want a lecture," Masterton says. "What they really want is a hands-on experience."

Masterton says that she's seeing a lot of interest from counties outside of Buncombe who want to bring chefs to their schools. Right now, it's hard enough to turn the program into a well-oiled machine locally.

"There's a tremendous interest and need," says Masterton. "That's a little challenging, but thanks to ASAP, it's happening. We're so lucky to have them as a resource.”

“Ultimately, I really do want to have each school paired up with a chef or team of chefs," says Masterton. "My goal is that children will understand where their food comes from, that food tastes good and it's fun to play with," says Masterton, defying the age-old dinner-table admonition.

Good food and an active lifestyle are important weapons in the battle against childhood obesity, she says. She adds that working with kids at a young age is crucial. "They're just fabulous. They accept what you give them,” she says.

Masterton says that she recently talked to a teenager who reported that his school offered healthy options, but no one ate them. “They want macaroni and cheese and crap, because they're high-school kids and frankly set in their ways," explains Masterton. "Michelle Obama was smart to say, 'Let's start with the little kids,' because they're going to change what their parents do.”

The high-school boy was writing a report for the school paper, and Masterton told him that as a writer and peer, he played a part in influencing those around him. “Look, you have to demand change, then you have to take part in it," she told him. "You have to tell your friends to eat this stuff, because if the cafeteria workers make it and no one eats it, economically they can't keep making it.”

And that’s a good example of a lesson that many local administrators of this program are being reminded of through this process. As cliché as it sounds, change begins where we stand. Great ideas are one thing, but it's up to members of a community to uphold it and make it happen. Engagement sparks movements.

“The parents have to be involved and care about it, too,” says Masterton. “[The situation is] going to change because of a caring mother or father. It's going to change because of children who care. Kids have to be educated — and they have to take charge, too. You have to say, 'look, I want to be healthy, so I want to eat good food.'”

“So, no it's not going to change just from chefs being in schools, but it's a part, and it's what chefs can do to help make it happen," she says.

Also, she adds, changing how kids — and eventually parents — eat is not going to happen in the blink of an eye.

“It takes time, it really takes time," says Masterton. "Someone once told me that you can't push up the roots of something. You have to plant the seeds and wait. I'm having a hard time being patient, but I think that ultimately it will make a difference. And it already is.”

For more information about the local Chefs Move to Schools program, visit http://growing-minds.org/chefstoschools.php or contact ASAP Project Coordinator Anna Littman at 236-1282 ext. 110.

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

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