The Dallas Examiner
Farmer Geoff and Chef Trina introduced young palates to a “fresh attitude” toward farm fresh fruits and vegetables as the Dallas Independent School District recognized Fresh Attitude Week during the first week of the month as a way of promoting more varied and beneficial foods to youngsters in their formative years.
Second graders at N.W. Harllee Early Childhood Center took part in the healthy eating showcase, hosting Primal Gardens owner Geoff Gray and executive chef Trina Nelson with Dallas ISD Food and Child Nutrition Services on May 8.
The district is a member of the Urban School Food Alliance, a coalition of large districts across the U.S. that participate in Fresh Attitude Week.
The observation is a yearly event in collaboration with the French Department of Agriculture and the French Inter-Branche Association of Fresh Fruits and Vegetables, intended to highlight fresh fruits and vegetables in school meals, which will expand students’ palates and broaden their attitudes toward food, according to a written announcement released by the alliance.
“Many inner-city students live in food deserts with little access to fresh items, so it is important to educate them about a variety of produce,” the statement concluded.
Farmer Geoff grows a variety of vegetables, edible flowers and tilapia on his land in Seminole, Texas, using a method of sustainable farming called aquaponic production. Part of his demonstration to the students featured bib lettuce grown without soil on top of a fish tank. The water and fish fertilize the plants and the plants provide partial nutrition to the fish, supplemented with hand-feeding.
The children were eagerly engaged in the presentation, not only curious about the relationship cycle between Farmer Geoff’s plants and fish, but also with the use of beneficial insects, such as butterflies, to keep plants healthy and pest free. As the grower passed around wrapped bowls filled with vegetation and live ladybugs – which eat other detrimental insects – he explained how this more natural style of farming was better in terms of reducing chemical residues than what can be found on more traditional store-bought food.
“There’s a lot that we use,” he commented about some of the insects utilized in his farming. “But they’re so small you have to see them in a microscope.”
Farmer Geoff admitted that aquaponic and other forms of specialized farming often resulted in more expensive fruits and vegetables, but added that flavor and texture was noticeably improved and the size of the yield was often bigger.
Those claims were tested when Chef Trina began her segment of the assembly, which included sampling goods from the farm versus a local grocery store, and a recipe demonstration of a strawberry vinaigrette dressing.
She emphasized that behind the intellectual discovery and mental engagement that comes from hands-on learning, the event was designed to introduce younger students of the district to a different way of farming.
“The flavor is totally different,” she said of the resulting plants. “The one that really stood out to me was the kale. The kale that we get in our regular grocery stores, it’s dry, it’s kind of bitter. The kale that Farmer Geoff grows, the leaves are tender. The flavor is wonderful. It’s still got a little bitterness to it because kale is a bitter green; however, it’s not that one that kind of makes you cringe, and so the kale really stood out to me.”
Nelson, who said that she spent five years teaching at Le Cordon Bleu where she specialized in nutrition classes, also noted that each like vegetable was unique, as nature intended.
“And so I explained, here’s a store, and you see the Roma tomatoes – every one of them looks exactly the same. There’s not really a lot of flavor, and so with our real, aquaponic-grown, every tomato has its own life. Every tomato is doing its own thing.”
She compared such farming to that of heirloom vegetable varieties or organic gardening. “And the flavor, the kids said themselves, ‘It’s sweeter.’”
During the taste demonstration, students were divided up into groups to sample Gray’s produce and given hand-held signs they could flip – a red thumbs-down symbol on one side for a food they didn’t like, and a green thumbs-up symbol for the food they preferred. It was repeatedly apparent that the vegetables grown via the aquaponic method were favored by the vast majority of children.
As she was thanked and praised by the students after the demo, the chef recalled the quandary of food deserts across the district.
“A lot of our students, they see fruit in a can or vegetables in a can,” she complained about the more common processed fare. “We did a survey at one of our middle schools, and I brought a whole pineapple. You’d be amazed at the number of children who had never seen a whole, uncut pineapple. And so, by us partnering with our local farmers – Farmer Geoff and things like that – we are able to reintroduce our students to fresh fruit and vegetables.”
Despite the higher cost of such produce, a larger plant yield may ease the price difference some, and better-tasting food could lead to more product on school lunch trays being eaten rather than getting thrown out. The chef shared her thoughts on the likelihood of such innovative growing techniques becoming further integrated into the district.
“Definitely, definitely,” she affirmed. “Because here’s the thing: We have to start getting food back. Number one, it’s healthy for our children, and I mean, what’s more worth an investment than that?” she offered.
“So, by partnering with Farmer Geoff and other local farmers, and because of the volume that we buy, we can procure some pretty good stuff at a pretty good price.”
She admitted that it may mean removing some things from the menu, but the long-term advantage makes investigating different food sources worthwhile.
“Budget is always a factor; however, there’s ways to counterbalance it out. And at the end of the day, what’s the big picture?” Nelson posed, philosophically. “We want strong, healthy kids. And we want kids that can be exposed to what real produce is.”