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“Dig deeper! Deeper!” a fourth-grader squealed as her classmate plunged a trowel into the rich soil of the Bumblebee Garden at J. Blaine Blayton Elementary School in James City County.
The students were harvesting sweet potatoes, and with each spud they seized their eyes grew wide at the vegetable’s size, many turning up larger than the ones they might find at the grocery store.
The sweet potatoes will soon make their way onto lunch trays at Blayton as part of the school’s small-scale farm-to-fork effort, a program highlighted during this year’s statewide Farm-to-School Week.
“It’s fun and it’s healthy and you just don’t want to stop,” fourth-grader Lindsay Hanks said.
First Lady of Virginia Dorothy McAuliffe visited the garden, read to first-graders and met with students during lunchtime at Blayton on Tuesday morning to kick off the weeklong event, which heightens awareness of Virginia’s fresh food options and connects schools with potential farm partners.
The Bumblebee Garden, which launched in 2010, features a variety of crops including okra, snap peas and tomatoes as well as more uncommon items like Jerusalem artichokes, peanuts and cotton. Students work with certified master gardeners to plant seeds and harvest the vegetables.
“I think it encourages the kids to eat more healthfully,” said Marlene Armstrong, a member of the garden’s steering committee. “If they harvest [the food] themselves, they have a connection to it.”
In addition to the Bumblebee Garden, students at Blayton enjoy fresh produce from KelRae Farm in Toano, which was recently recognized by the Williamsburg Health Foundation for its efforts to supply the Williamsburg area with nutritious food. KelRae’s butternut squash was served alongside pasta and fruit during lunch Tuesday afternoon.
To encourage students to try vegetables they may not be familiar with, Marie Homer, consulting chef for WJCC’s School Health Initiative Program, said she thinks like a parent.
“We are just taking good comfort food and updating it,” Homer said. “This is the squash grandma used to make.”
Rather than sugar-coating the squash, Homer added apples, cinnamon and brown sugar. She said meal presentation and the kitchen staff’s enthusiasm for the product is essential if they want to turn a potential “yuck” into a “yum.” So far, she said, it’s working.
“These kids are rising to the occasion every time. They’re eating parsnips, raw spinach salad,” Homer said. “You add your little touch to it and they’ll eat it.”
Jim Golden, the vice chairman of the Williamsburg Health Foundation, said SHIP, which coordinated the kickoff event, is a good example for other communities in Virginia that want to start or enhance their farm-to-fork efforts.
SHIP is a partnership between the foundation and the school division to promote healthy eating and active lifestyles.
“It takes an effort like that. You have to solve the challenges of actually getting nutritious food to a place, in a setting like this, where kids have access to it,” Golden said.
Farm-to-School Week takes place annually in Virginia during the first week of October.