Sally Schmidt knows six words guaranteed to get first-graders to eat asparagus. “It makes your pee smell funny.”
The first-graders in question, students in Thomas DeVaughn’s class at Linwood Holton Elementary School, are not particularly inspired by the subject of healthy eating, but they are interested in the pretty purple flowers Schmidt has laid out on her work table. Picking one up, she tells the class it is a chive. She lets them touch it, feel it, smell it.
Chives and asparagus, she tells the children, are in the lily family. They are perennials, plants that come back year after year, she explains, deftly slipping a little botany and vocabulary into her cooking class.
Schmidt is a local chef who, along with fellow chef Ellie Basch, is the co-founder of Femme Foodies, LLC. Originally formed as a social and business networking group for local women chefs and restaurateurs, Femme Foodies has also become Richmond’s arm of Michelle Obama’s Chefs Move to Schools initiative, which brings professional chefs into classrooms to promote healthy eating.
As Schmidt and Basch discovered first-hand, sometimes the biggest hurdle is getting into the classroom in the first place, as school systems are intensely bureaucratic enterprises. And then there is the challenge of SOLs. Promoting healthy eating is not enough. The program also needs to reinforce classroom learning, which is one reason why, before Schmidt began her cooking lesson, DeVaughn set the stage by reading his class a story about how a caterpillar becomes a butterfly. A caterpillar eats leaves on the way to becoming a butterfly, which eats flowers. After passing around the chives, Schmidt lets the students handle some tarragon. First leaves and then flowers, just like the caterpillar and the butterfly – just like in the SOLs.
Femme Foodies is, itself, in the caterpillar stage at this point. “We have forty chefs on our email list, but only about six actively involved in the teaching and cooking programs,” says Basch.
Holton was the first school at which Femme Foodies offered their cooking classes. Basch says the group hopes to use the coming school year to expand the program with more classes and more chefs at Holton, and then move out to other schools in the future. “Our goal is for the public schools in the city and counties to see us as a partner in implementing nutritional programs for the students.”
If their experience at Holton is any indication, they are off to a strong start. “The staff and parents felt that the cooking classes allowed the students to learn how to eat healthy, make great decisions on a proper diet and prepare nutritional meals,” said David Hudson, the principal at Holton. “The classes also allow teaching cross-curriculum with cooking, math [measurement], history of food, science, and language arts. The classes addressed the SOLs. We plan on continuing the program as long as we continue to receive support from the chefs.”
In June of 2010, Basch and Schmidt went to the White House with 800 other chefs from around the nation to attend the Chefs Move to Schools kickoff. There, among other events in a full-day program, they attended a symposium to learn the challenges and methodologies of taking their passion for cooking into the classroom.
“We were warned it was not going to be easy,” said Basch, and indeed it has been slow going. “Anytime you deal with school systems, there is going to be red tape.”
While they slowly increase their school presence, Femme Foodies is working in other locations that allow them to offer different kinds of instruction. A parent/ child cooking class offered last summer at William Byrd Community House was so successful that they recently offered it again at the Peter Paul Development Center. The opportunity to bring parents into the picture is one they don’t get in the standard school setting.
“We don’t hear much from parents otherwise,” said Schmidt.
But that doesn’t mean the students aren’t taking what they learn in the classroom home. Schmidt shared a recent comment that appeared on the Femme Foodies blog: I was SHOCKED when my son Trey came home and told me he had eaten cabbage at school that day and that it was really GOOD! He also informed me that I was cooking it incorrectly (I usually steam it). Next time I cook cabbage, I’m going to stir-fry!
“That was a wonderful affirmation,” said Schmidt, adding for the record that she told the child there was nothing wrong with steaming cabbage. “It just turns out he likes it better stir-fried.”
The child’s preference for stir-fried over steamed is important to this particular group of classroom instructors. “We are chefs,” says Basch, “and we want to make sure that taste comes first.”
Ah, yes. Taste. In DeVaughn’s class, Schmidt mixes the aforementioned chives, tarragon, and asparagus, along with green beans, summer savory, and bowtie pasta to create a pasta salad. When the students line up to sample, they are unsure about what they are about to experience. They have all agreed to try it, but one girl is leery. “Can I eat just a little bit of it?” she asks.
Sure, says Schmidt, so long as everyone knows the rule: Before getting seconds of anything you have to eat everything on your plate.
The students return to their tables, and for a few minutes, there is studied silence. Some students pick out the green beans and skip the pasta. Others do the exact opposite. Before long, conversation begins to pick up.
“You should try a green bean and a pasta at the same time.”
“Can I have that if you’re not going to eat it?”
“Who wants to smell my breath?”
When they begin lining up for seconds, one boy asks Schmidt, “This time, can I have only asparagus?”
Schmidt beams. “Anytime someone only wants veggies, that’s fine with me!”
Some students return for thirds, and by the time all is said and done, the large metal mixing bowl that had been full of pasta salad is empty.
As Schmidt gathers her things and prepares to leave, the class serenades her with the “Thank-You Song.” And then, a hand is in the air. There is just time for one final question.
“Can I go to the bathroom?” asks a boy, his tone one of scholarly seriousness. “I need to smell my pee.”