When one of the goals is to let them eat kale, it’s better to have youngsters working down on the farm, where they also can learn to puree.
That is part of the seed-to-table philosophy behind Seeds for Success, a week-long farm camp for 18 youths from the Boys and Girls Club of Greater La Crosse at Deep Roots Community Farm in the town of Greenfield southeast of the city.
Grow La Crosse is directing the program in collaboration with Boys and Girls Club and People’s Food Co-op in La Crosse, with an $11,700 grant from the Robert and Eleanor Franke Charitable Foundation.
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This is the second week for Seeds, a pilot program in which youngsters ages 7 to 12 participate for full days, beginning at the co-op helping to prepare their own breakfasts, said Anne Seehaver, executive director of the nonprofit organization Grow La Crosse.
“Today, they started at the co-op and chopped vegetables and made smoothies for breakfast,” Seehafer said during a tour Tuesday.
The campers then ride Boys and Girls Club vans to Deep Roots to learn where food comes from by working with plants and animals.
The program includes breakfast, snacks and lunch with plenty fresh fruits and vegetables the youths harvest — a change from last year when participants brought their own lunches from home, Seehafer said.
“It’s harder to get kids to try kale if they have their own lunches with kid-type foods,” she said.
That logic proved true a few minutes later, when the kids took a snack break, noshing on fresh green peppers, broccoli and celery dunked in homemade dill dip, with other options including apples and cantaloupe.
“I just got 10 thumbs up on the dill dip,” said Ana Skemp, farm co-owner and one of the teachers for Seeds for Success.
Ana and her husband, Andy, came back from Arizona academia with master’s degrees 12 years ago to work the 170-acre farm, which has been in Andy’s family since the 1940s. They raise grass-fed beef, pastured hogs and vegetables, as well as chickens, and also operate Lucky Pony Stables, which offers riding lessons.
The Skemps’ decision to name the spread Deep Roots Community Farm and host education programs and other public events stemmed in part from Ana’s experience as a first-grade teacher at the former Three Rivers Waldorf School in La Crosse.
“I saw how happy the kids were out in nature, and I took kids outside whenever I could,” because it prepared their brains for learning, Ana said.
“As a mother, that became more pronounced,” said the mother of three children, ages 9, 7 and 5.
Seehafer underscored Ana’s talent in tutelage, saying, “She’s constantly teaching, and they don’t even know it.”
Grow La Crosse originally sprouted as Grow Your Brain but blossomed with the name change after organizers met the Skemps and connected its mission to healthier eating, Seehafer said.
Cultivating its growth is the corporate sponsorship of Mayo Clinic Health System-Franciscan Healthcare, she said, adding, “In my opinion, that is the reason we’ve been able to grow so fast, with cash and in-kind contributions.”
The youngsters find food for the body even as they cultivate their minds doing chores, she said.
“As they are going to feed the pigs, they are eating raspberries from the garden,” and they make their own cookbooks featuring dishes they learn to cook during camp, Seehafer said.
“Being on the farm, they are doing work that really matters to kids,” she said. “Gardening creates a lasting bond with the land and relieves stress. I believe it will provide a lasting impact to eat healthy foods.
“We can give kids healthy foods,” but that is for naught if they don’t eat them, she said. “Kids will eat raw kale out of a garden,” while they may opt out if presented store-bought produce if they don’t see the origin.
Chef Shawn McManus of Savory Creations in La Crosse teaches culinary skills, and the children also learn how to shop while touring the co-op, she said.
One of the children, 6-year-old Landon W, reveled in the experience, saying, “My favorite part is eating raspberries.”
Stumbling over how to spell his lengthy tongue-twister of a name, Landon explained, “That’s why they call me Landon W,” and was quick to add that he is almost 7.
Seeing the participants try new foods delights Hannah Schultz, a Boys and Girls Club employee who was working with the campers.
“It is fun to see them eat fruits and vegetables, because I hated them when I was little,” Schultz said. “It’s nice to see times are changing.”
One of the highlights of the camp will come Thursday night, when the campers will help prepare a meal for their families at the West Salem Boys and Girls Club, said Josh Wolcott, lead teacher for the camp who also has a large family garden on the property.
The dinner will feature lasagna with homemade egg noodles and sauce — both made from scratch — minestrone soup from Hillview Urban Agriculture Center in La Crosse, homemade ice cream and blueberry cobbler, he said.
The garden, which Wolcott said “has so many treasures,” becomes an outdoor classroom where participants also harvest the bounty.
Tuesday, before turning the students loose to harvest the vegetables du jour, Wolcott patiently explained the differences between the tomatoes they would be picking and how to determine which ones were ripe.
Holding a ground cherry tomato, Wolcott demonstrated how to peel away the paper-like shell and encouraged the children to “eat one right away. They taste like sunshine. Eat as many as you can.”
The campers did as told, with some agreeing with Wolcott’s taste review and others, well, a few others, spitting them out.
Wolcott told them that tomatoes that are dirty from resting on the ground will be fine when washed and posed the question: “What if you pick one up, and it’s rotten?”
That drew an immediate response from an anonymous voice in the peanut gallery: “Throw it at someone.”
Laughing the suggestion off, Wolcott transformed it into a teaching moment, saying, “Worst case, just leave it on the ground and the seeds will turn into tomatoes next year.”
He gave a quick lesson about which peppers the pupils should pick, admonishing them not to harvest the carrot peppers.
“They will make you cry, and we’re not looking for tears today,” he said.
Regularly bringing his middle school students to the farm throughout the year, Wolcott said, “I feel fortunate being in the city and living so close to the farm.
“That’s one of the things that’s so powerful about this collaboration that makes it so special. I can grow a garden, but I don’t have a bus (to bring children to the garden) like the Boys and Girls Club,” Wolcott said.
“As a teacher, I know they can really learn from growing vegetables and harvesting them,” he said.
The bonus to the experience comes “watching the expression on a child’s face when they bit into something and feel the surprise of the taste, experiencing a food they never thought they would eat.
“In that moment, you know you have given them change, and they will grow to eat healthy foods,” Wolcott said. “It’s education at its best.”