Fork in the Road takes on Jr. Iron Chef

For my blog this week I want to do something a little bit different and share a story. A story about a fierce competition we have in Vermont called Jr. Iron Chef.

Jr. Iron Chef VT is “a statewide culinary competition that challenges teams of middle and high school students to create healthy, local dishes that inspire school meal programs.”1 Teams of three to five students have ninety minutes to prepare a dish of their design and wow a diverse panel of judges who critique not only the taste and appearance of the final dish, but the professionalism and teamwork exhibited during the cooking process. Leading up to the competition, teams spend hours practicing under the guidance of their coaches who range from teachers and afterschool educators to school food service workers and professional chefs.

Back in late January I became the coach of a Jr. Iron Chef team, one made up of a handful of high school-aged culinary superstars. I’ve known these kids since the summer when they worked on our Fork in the Road food truck. Recently they’ve all been volunteering once a week at our local food shelf to help prepare meals. And since January they’ve added Jr. Iron Chef meetings to their weekly schedule—two intense hours of practicing preparing our dish, Tofu Tikka Masala with Homemade Paneer and Toasted Pita.

Our team has cooked and re-cooked this dish what feels like countless times, each week further honing the flavor and perfecting both execution and presentation. Adding that extra tablespoon of lemon juice to the paneer to get just the right tang. Cycling through different varieties of peppers until we nailed the desired heat in our dish. Figuring out if we should be dicing or cubing our sweet potato. Plating all our ingredients one way, then another way, then yet another way… tweaking the placement of that toasted pita so it leans at the perfect angle against the sauté topped rice.

And this past Saturday, we finally put all our hard work to the test as we joined over fifty other teams at the Champlain Valley Expo Center for the 10th annual Jr. Iron Chef VT competition.

Donning brand new chef coats, battered Fork in the Road baseball hats, and crisp white aprons, our team arrived just as awards were being doled out for the AM heat (there’s not enough space at the Expo Center for all teams to compete at once). At 12 o’clock sharp the giant corral that encloses the competition space was opened; we found our assigned table, efficiently set up our cooking station, passed our Brigade Check with flying colors, then eagerly waited for the cook-off to start.

And from the second the allotted ninety minutes began, our team performed with such professionalism and confidence that I am still in awe. There was just no stopping them—it was as if they had transcended some plane of existence. These kids worked with a precision, dedication and passion I have rarely seen in adults, yet alone youth. It’s hard to describe those ninety minutes as anything other than inspiring.

As we raised our green flag to signal we were done cooking and ready to have our samples delivered to the Judges Room, everyone on the team was beaming. We all knew something special had just happen. At that point, it truly didn’t matter if the team won any awards—in fact, for these kids it was never about that, they just love cooking together that much. And what they had just done during the competition was one of the purest expressions of love—for cooking and for each other—that I have ever seen.

That being said, our Fork in the Road team did win an award: Mise en Place, which goes to “the team that shows exemplary teamwork, order and professionalism.”2


  1. Quote from http://vtfeed.org/jrironchefvt
  2. Quote from http://vtfeed.org/jrironchefvt

Creative Connections for the Snowbound Garden Educator

You might remember from my last blog post that I’ve spent the majority of my teaching career in Vermont and Maine, two states blessed by communities interested in food- and garden-based education, but cursed with relatively short growing seasons. One can generally assume that for six months out of the year, November through April, very little outdoor gardening will take place. And as someone who loves working in the garden, independently and with my students, this reality is a relatively frustrating one (to put it lightly).

This long winter poses a number of challenges from an educational standpoint for anyone managing a school garden program. Mainly, how do you retain student interest in a space that sits idle for more than half the school year?

To answer this question, I had to do a bit of rebranding with my students. We weren’t just going to learn about gardening, we were going to learn about food in general, an all-encompassing lens that includes plant science, cooking, tasting, nutrition and food systems work. And over the course of the long winter, we slowly but surely (in 40 minute chunks of time each week) made our way through all these topics.

As with any subject, creating an outline for your coursework can be challenging, and I spent a significant amount of time figuring out where to start, how to transition between each lesson, and build up understanding sequentially from unit to unit. Below, I’ve listed some of topics and specifics I covered with my students to help get your own winter brainstorming session started:

Garden Connections: Wrap up your growing season by completing a retrospective with your students. How many hours did you spend in the garden? How many varieties of carrots did you plant? How many pounds of produce did you harvest or bring to your cafeteria?

Food Systems: While some food from your garden might make its way into your school cafeteria, other foods have to travel many miles before they reach your lunch tray. Trace and compare the steps in both local and conventional food systems.

Nutrition: No matter where food comes from, it can be categorized into one of the five food groups. Learn the health benefits of each food group (including how certain colors of fruits and veggies can help your body in different ways) and practice identifying foods by food group.

Cooking: (Ongoing activities in between units). Prepare a snack in class and keep track of recipes in a Tasting Journal. Tie your cooking and tasting activities to the topic you’re covering by identifying what food groups your ingredients are in, which plant parts they are, and which food system produced them.

Plant Science: When we eat fruits and veggies we’re usually only eating one or two parts of a plant. Learn all the plant parts and practice identifying what parts you’re eating. And once you know all about seeds, fruits and roots, move onto a discussion of life cycles (and maybe even pollination).

Garden Connections: Wrap up your lessons on life cycles from your Plant Science unit by planting seeds in growing flats and watching a life cycle unfold. Depending on your timing, these can be starts for your garden! Give students the opportunity to decide what they want to plant. Have them research new varieties, conduct school-wide interest polls and ask food service workers what they might be able to use in the cafeteria from the garden.

Blog by: Christine Gall

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Introducing Blogger, Christine Gall

In my last blog post, I wrote about ways to approach teaching in outdoor classrooms, touching upon the need to shift ingrained mindsets concerning when and where learning can take place, and providing a variety of teaching tips. Many of the strategies I included are practices I’ve used and continue to use when working with youth outside. These days, this means a school garden, but in the past I’ve spent time utilizing everything from haylofts and dairy barns to sugarbushes and heavily wooded trails as classrooms.

I’ve been teaching youth about food since 2010. In college, I spent two summers working at a Farm Camp in the lower Hudson River Valley ten minutes away from the suburban town where I grew up, and thirty-five minutes away from New York City. Campers collected eggs, weeded in the greenhouse, harvested vegetables from the fields, helped move sheep from pasture to pasture, and prepared everything from small snacks to full meals. Many of these youth were from surrounding towns, but some kids ventured up from the city—many of them had never played in the dirt or conceived of food as coming from somewhere other than the grocery store.

Somewhere between arriving at the farm for staff orientation and handing out freshly harvested celebratory carrots on the last day of camp I fell in love with agriculture and education. Not only did I find the farm, with its versatile and ever-changing landscape, an engaging and inspiration arena for teaching, but there was something magically universal about discussing food with youth.

And so, I decided to move to Vermont to spend six months living on top of a mountain in a small off-grid cabin. I believed that in order to teach youth about food and agriculture, I needed to better understand it myself. I spent my days tending a forty-head sheep flock, cultivating fields using antique plows and two rambunctious draft horses, picking berries, and delighting in haying season. I felled trees, participated in farmer’s markets, bottled maple syrup and drove stick shift for the first time while on a mission to pick up five Tamworth piglets (I stalled once on a dirt road three minutes from my destination). Over the course of these six months I only occasionally worked with youth, facilitating service learning projects or leading wide-eyed school groups around the farm to meet the animals.

Following this growing season, I took a small step backwards from farm work and a big step forward in field of education. I spent the next four years teaching in a variety of different settings: daily field trips on another farm in Vermont, enrichment classes in the gardens and cafeterias of a rural school district in Maine, a self-designed summer camp program, after-school cooking clubs. I did a little bit of everything, but always about food – broadening comfort zones, expanding tasting horizons, connecting youth to the land, candidly exploring eating habits, and fostering cultures where agriculture and discussions about food were normalized, commonplace and seamlessly integrated into everyday life.

Much of the future content in my blog posts will be drawn from my personal experiences as an educator. I hope to share teaching tips, helpful resources and ideas for garden-based projects. All of these blog posts will also be featured on my Pinterest board, Garden Education with Christine, where you can find everything from creative crafts and gardening advice to educational videos and my favorite food-based books to read with youth.

Forging New Connections with our New Blog Format

One of our goals at KidsGardening is to establish a strong connection with those of you around the country—educators, parents, and community members—who are actively working to bring the many benefits of garden-based learning to youngsters through school, community, and home gardens. We want to develop dynamic and meaningful relationships with all of you who are out there “in the field,” cultivating children’s minds, hearts, and bodies as well as plants. We hope we can pass along information and ideas that will inspire you and make your youth gardening endeavors more successful. And in return, we hope that you’ll connect with us through your comments to let us know about your real-life achievements and challenges and to offer your suggestions for how we, as a national organization, can help you get the resources you need to connect kids to the garden and to keep the world of school and youth gardening growing and thriving.

To this end, we are excited to share news of some changes we’ll be making to our Growing Ideas Blog. For starters, you’ll now see posts twice a week, on Mondays and Thursdays, instead of just once a week. Next, four members of our KidsGardening staff will be posting regularly in rotation. Each of these staff members will bring a specific focus to her posts, one that reflects her unique interests, expertise, and experience.

Executive Director Emily Shipman’s background in sustainable development, agriculture, food systems, and food security reflects her interest in youth gardening as a catalyst for social change. In her posts she’ll be exploring both what we know and what we’re learning about the transformative power of gardening with kids. In addition to writing from her own perspective, she’ll be talking with advocates, practitioners, and thought leaders across the youth gardening spectrum, sharing their inspiration and information we all can learn from.

 

Senior Education Specialist Sarah Pounders has been active in the field of youth gardening for more than 20 years and brings wide-ranging experience helping educators integrate garden-based learning into the classroom. And as the parent of a 9 year-old and a 5 year-old, she also brings a parental perspective to the world of kids’ gardening, both as the garden coordinator at her daughter’s school and as an avid home gardener. In her blog posts she’ll offer ideas for ways educators and parents can enhance the learning opportunities and fun that gardening offers.

 

Education Specialist Christine Gall brings a wealth of hands-on experience in garden and food-based learning, both in school settings and in programs at educational farms. Her blog posts will be drawn from her personal experiences as an educator as well as her passionate commitment to connecting kids with healthful food systems.

 

 

Horticulturist Susan Littlefield brings more than 30 years of experience helping folks solve their gardening problems and get the information they need for successful growing. Her background as a garden writer and enthusiastic home gardener, along with the fun she had introducing her two now-grown kids to the world of plants, will help her connect in an accessible way with those active in school and youth gardening. In her blog posts she is looking forward to sharing practical tips and interesting ideas and information, as well as answering your gardening questions.

 

Please join the conversation! We welcome your feedback on our new blog format. We’d also like to hear suggestions for topics you’d like to see addressed or ideas for ways to make our communications with you more useful, as well as your thoughts and comments on specific blog posts. We hope our blog will become an on-going dialog, connecting the KidsGardening organization with the wide and wonderful world of kids’ gardening!

Set the Stage for Learning in an Outdoor Garden Classroom

Christine Gall – Education Specialist

One of the most common barriers many teachers feel they face when it comes to using the garden as a classroom is the simple fact that it is an outdoor space. “My students go wild when I take them out,” “I can’t get them to focus—it’s just too chaotic,” are some of the most common refrains I’ve heard. While many educators would agree that student energy levels tend to skyrocket when given the opportunity to venture outside, understanding why this is the case can be the key to creating more manageable and productive visits to your Outdoor Classroom.

For many elementary-aged students, the only time they go outside during the school day is recess, and perhaps gym. Both of these situations are generally high energy and are largely characterized as a time when students can let loose and have some wiggle room—a brief escape from more sedentary and confining classroom expectations such as sitting quietly at a desk, being a respectful listener and using an inside voice.

This typical school day schedule, with limited time spent outdoors, essentially promotes a belief that learning only takes place in the classroom. Students become inadvertently conditioned to seeing the outdoors as a place where they get a break from learning rather than an environment where learning can take place. And so, the first time a group of students is brought outside for a “class,” they often respond to the outdoor environment in the same way that they would respond to it any other time: by being loud and excited because in their eyes it’s free time!

Rather than turning around, going indoors and never thinking about class outside again because it’s “too chaotic,” have a candid conversation with students about how learning can take place in a variety of different settings. It may take some time for students to adjust to the concept of an outdoor classroom—in fact, it often takes time for educators to feel comfortable teaching in a non-classroom environment. To make this transition easier for both you and your students, try out a few of these helpful tips:

  • It may seem obvious to you, but always remind your students that they are going outside for class, not recess.
  • Create a special Outdoor Agreement or Garden Pledge as a way to outline expectations for time spent outside. This document might also include garden-specific behaviors, such as “ask before you pick something” or “check in with an adult before using a tool.” Bring it with you so students can refer to it while in their Outdoor Classroom and revisit it the first few times you venture outside.
  • While outdoors, make sure that whenever you address your students as a group they are facing away from the sun, making it easier for them to pay attention—there’s nothing worse than forcing your audience to squint into bright light.
  • If possible, also orient your group of students so that anything you might need to point out is already in their line of sight. Having to constantly turn around to see the garden beds or equipment you’re referencing can be distracting for youth.
  • Embrace the space you have and harness student energy! Recognize the impact the freedom of an outdoor learning environment has on a child and push the boundaries of your comfort zone as an educator accustomed to working in an indoor classroom.

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