Kids Finding They Actually Like Organic Veggies in School Lunches
Two Oakland schools offer produce stands
By Momo Chang Inside Bay Area, 10/16/06
OAKLAND — Garfield and Franklin elementary schools in the San Antonio district are experiencing a change in food education. In that East Oakland neighborhood, children are being exposed at an early age to organic vegetables such as beets, bittermelon and bell peppers.
"Generally, if you look at what's available in our schools, in our neighborhoods, junk food is really easy to get," said Christine Cherdboonmuang, who co-teaches an after-school cooking class.
Both schools launched an after-school, organic produce stand and cooking classes this year with the help of the East Bay Asian YouthCenter and state and local grants.
One recent weekday afternoon, promptly at the bell, Garfield kids flooded the hallways and headed for the door. But many stopped by the new, once-a-week produce stand. Some kids even have been asking parents for extra dollars to buy such things as raspberries and plums.
The produce stand idea came about after the youth center interviewed parents in the neighborhood about what keeps them from feeding their children healthier foods, said EBAYC executive director David Kakishiba.
Access was the main issue, EBAYC found. The San Antonio district has small markets, many of them Asian markets selling produce, so the neighborhood is not in as dire a situation as other parts of Oakland are, said Kakishiba. But parents want more food choices.
The produce stand is modeled after farmer markets throughout Oakland. Parents have been slowly getting used to the idea of a school produce stand, said Garfield Principal Maria Dehghanfard.
But competing with tables chock-full of colorful organic fruits and vegetables is an ice cream truck and vendor, who pulls up to the curb to entice young students as school lets out.
"That's a concern to me not only because of the healthy eating but because ... they're on the street and our kids are jumping out in the street," said Dehghanfard, looking decidedly peeved.
One afternoon, the day of the produce stand, an older girl is about to enter the school's double doors but the assistant principal stops her, eyes her bag of hot chips and notes no food is allowed in the hallways.
Oh, the hot chips. The spicy, artificial flavor-laden snacks seem to be symbolic of what's wrong with kids' diets these days. A convenience store is just around the corner, and the principal says many children frequent it before and after school for snacks, an issue not unique to Garfield and the San Antonio district.
But even when chips and soda pass for "lunch," fighting junk food has proven to be surprisingly not as tough as champions of healthy food had thought. The produce stand has picked up since school has started, said Dehghanfard. Operated by EBAYC's Healthy Eating, Active Living project, the stand is just about at the break-even point.
As one parent puts it: It's more convenient to pick up produce when she picks up her daughter. Most of the produce, all organic, is from farmers who sell at the Berkeley Farmers Market.
Phal Pen, whose daugher attends Garfield, hugs a brown bag full of strawberries, nectarines, green beans and herbs.
"I like it because it's organic food," she said. "We always go to the one in Chinatown (Old Oakland). This is better, just picking her up and getting some groceries."
Many have lamented younger generations of parents just don't cook anymore. But small groups of Oakland kids are learning the art and joy of cooking, while HEAL trains young kids to be organic, raw foodies.
On a Wednesday afternoon, a dozen children are busy peeling cucumbers, chopping garlic and blending pesto sauce to make "raw pasta." Twice a week, Garfield's Room 235 becomes an after-school kitchen.
Recipes for the after-school class don't really involve cooking in the traditional sense, and they all include seasonal ingredients kids and parents can find at the produce stand.
In their first class, the children made fruit salad. Other recipes include jugo de ensalada ("salad juice"), California rolls made with brown rice, raw pie, homemade jam and simple snacks such as ants-on-a-log — celery sticks with peanut butter and raisins.
After about an hour of messy chopping and preparing, the kids are ready to judge the final product. "What do you like about the raw pasta?" Cherdboonmuang asked. "I liked the pasta because we all made it together," said 10-year-old Julio Noriega, attending his first cooking class. Others complained the pesto was "spicy" from the raw garlic, but they all seemed to enjoy themselves.
Two girls said they've been taking the recipes home. They gather their families — who attend church together — on Saturdays and cook for them, said Brenda Villarreal, 9.
"We get some of our relatives, me and her," said Brenda, pointing to friend Candy Sarseno. "You know how they have cooking shows? We have a table, and we act like we're on TV."
Although most of the produce from the after-school stand comes from the Berkeley Farmers Market, HEAL hopes to bring its produce stand full circle, with EBAYC parent and grandparent volunteers growing produce for the after-school stands.
Full Circle: Watch an audio slideshow about children and parents reaping the benefits of a healthy eating program at an Oakland school.
For some families who have farmed in the past, it's a lack of space and resources, not a lack of desire, that stops them from growing their own food.
Lew Chien Saelee, an EBAYC parent coordinator, notes, "Mien people like to grow food."
EBAYC wants to fulfill the dream of many elderly people in the Mien community — estimated at several thousand in Oakland — to want to have land to farm. Most of the Mien arrived in Oakland as refugees from Laos and come from a farming background.
But many live in East Oakland and have little or no space for gardening, and some live in subsidized housing. Most are retired or don't work.
When two plots of land in vastly different neighborhoods suddenly opened up, Saelee saw an opportunity. One plot is in AgPark in Sunol, and the other at Alameda Point, the former site of a Navy base.
"When they saw the land, they started planting seeds right away," said Grey Kolevzon, an EBAYC staff member who helped secure the land.
But at the Alameda Point Collaborative farm, federal law prohibits digging in the ground, because of concerns about toxic soil, said Kolevzon. The would-be farmers got around the rules by piling several feet of compost over the soil.
Three Mien families began planting in the spring and already, cornstalks, squash, herbs and pumpkins have sprouted.
All the farmers — who are a part of the Mien Farming Collaborative — are affiliated with EBAYC. Some have children or grandchildren who attend one of the many after-school programs affiliated with the youth center.
"I think one of the things (the farms provide) are vegetables they like to eat that they cannot buy from the supermarket," said Saelee. "Two, this is the only skill they have. They're releasing stress. One of the ladies told me that she likes to go there even though she doesn't do anything, to watch the plants."
Already, the Mien urban farms are providing some products to the produce stands, such as giant, Lao-variety cucumbers. Many of the vegetables were grown from seeds from Laos, such as a small, rough corn, heirloom varieties of peppers, Asian eggplants and bittermelons.
"That's how people feel connected," said Saelee. "When they don't do anything, they feel isolated."
While HEAL is a fledgling project based on a three-year grant, Kakishiba hopes it will continue and expand.
"For EBAYC to do these produce stands is a step out of what we normally do," said Kakishiba, who also is the Oakland school board president.
Most EBAYC programs focus on academics, he said.
"What we're basically trying to do is to transform all the neighborhood schools in this (area), as it relates to nutrition and physical activity," he said.
In addition to the produce stand, cooking classes and urban farms, HEAL wants to start a school garden at Garfield, and hold community dinners to inform parents about better nutrition.
In the San Antonio neighborhood, where 90 percent of the stores either are liquor stores, convenience stores or gas stations, according to HEAL's research, the produce stands and cooking classes seem like a good prescription for better health.