“Tastes like pumpkin pie!”
“Can I have more?”
Those were but a few of the responses I heard shouted amongst the cheers of Lakewood Elementary third graders when asked about the sweet potato soup they had just tasted during the Durham public school’s annual Harvest Festival, held last Friday, November 20, on one of the most beautiful late autumn days in memory. With activities centered around the school’s garden, local and seasonal ingredients, and traditional foodways, the event brought together students, teachers, school officials, local chefs, and community volunteers to celebrate the autumn harvest of Lakewood’s schoolyard garden and the almost one-year anniversary of the planting of heirloom apple trees on school grounds. I’m happy to report that the apple trees, which were purchased with funds raised by the 2007 Farm to Fork Picnic and SEEDS, look quite healthy!
These students hadn’t just tasted the soup, however; they had also assisted in its preparation under the tutelage of ACME chef-owner Kevin Callaghan and local food activist Anna Child, who helped organize the event and currently works with UNC’s Gillings Sustainable Agriculture Project. Before tasting the warm samples of soup, each student had been assigned a spoon and a prep bowl, into which Callaghan and Child ladled dollops of roasted, bright orange sweet potato flesh and a ration of fresh cream. Under Callaghan’s bi-lingual direction in English and Spanish, while learning fun facts about sweet potatoes – Did you know that sweet potatoes are native to the Americas or that North Carolina grows more sweet potatoes than any other state? – the students folded the softened tuber flesh into the cream, creating a thick base for a hearty autumnal soup Callaghan completed with honey, salt, and nutmeg. The sweet potatoes used in the soup, the children learned, had recently been harvested from the nearby school garden. A few of the students, visibly pleased with their handiwork, had even helped with the harvest.
Across the way, April McGregor - who many readers might know from her virtuosic Farmer’s Daughter brand handcrafted food products, column for Grist.org by the same name, or friendly presence around her Carrboro stomping grounds – is guiding another group of youngsters through a hands-on primer on applesauce making from scratch. Standing in front of the school’s row of aforementioned apple trees, McGregor calls for volunteers to take turns at peeling and ricing a crate of colorful, juicy apples into a stainless steel bowl and then into a larger pot, to which other young volunteers added sugar and spices before stirring into a smooth amber sauce. The sugary aroma in the air was almost overwhelming. The resulting applesauce was simply amazing: sweet, complex, and singing with bright flavors of fresh apple above notes of spice and citrus. The completely clean sample cups in the nearby compost bucket were evidence of how much the children liked it.
A few steps away, with the help of Duke University Retiree Outreach (DURO) volunteers, SEEDS co-founder Brenda Brodie had set up her beautiful, hand-cranked, wood-and-steel cider press, into which passing groups of students were invited to toss apples before taking a turn at spinning the device’s wooden handle and lowering the large flat press. The syrupy juice, chunky with apple pulp, steadily flowed down a smooth chute and into heavy, food-grade pales before being ladled into sample cups for the children to taste.
Judging by most of the responses, any witness would have thought these children had never tasted apple juice before. Or at least it seemed that most of them had never had apple juice quite this good before. Few of us had, really. Now, even the most romantically inclined among us have to acknowledge that, for most families, gathering apples and physically pressing them into juice is not a realistic way to obtain a daily glass of sweet refreshment. Thinking of the exercise in these terms, however, misses the point, which is that the connections between land (tree), food (apples), people (selecting and pressing the fruit with human hands), and happiness (the joys of community and collaboration) are as easily experienced as an afternoon game of kickball. These students were not only learning about how a favorite drink can be made by hand (although that was an important aspect of the experience), they are also discovering the instant feedback loop that is cooking and eating – discovering, in some cases likely for the first time, that they have the power to take active roles in choosing and even creating the foods they eat.
Back to the sweet potato soup table: “Remember the sweet potatoes we dug up in the garden,” Child asked the class, eliciting a gentle eruption of nods, quick smiles, and affirmative uh-huh’s as they drained their cups, licking the sides and using their tiny fingers to scoop out every last bit of soup. Many of these students have spent time in the garden with Child, their teachers, and garden volunteers such as Elizabeth Newman and Dave Werlinger, who by all accounts have been instrumental in the garden’s vitality. Thanks to these individuals and to the solid support of Lakewood administrators, the schools garden provides an opportunity to integrate food education into core curricula. The students’ hands-on experience in the garden, and in cooking and food preparation events like the Harvest Festival, help cultivate a real appreciation of the natural world, the true value of food, and the rhythms of the seasons.
Now in its twelfth year, the Lakewood School Garden was started by DURO in 1997, and this fall it produced in impressive bounty of sweet potatoes, tomatoes, broccoli, cabbage, peppers, eggplant, cucumbers, Swiss chard, lettuce, and a number of herbs. According to Newman, the students learned about the entire process of growing and enjoying these foods, from building healthy soil, to planting, and finally, to harvesting and cooking.
It wasn’t clear whether the hyper-localness of the sweet potatoes added to the students’ taste experience, but the gleeful expressions of wonder and amazement (not unlike light bulbs shining above the heads of comic book characters) told of very real, experiential connections forming between food, flavor, the land, and their own human hands. Much has been written about how such connections have been pushed out of the modern consciousness by industrial food marketing, cultural homogenization, and the decades-long shift toward convenience and away from quality, sustainability, transparency, and perhaps most devastatingly, joy. This day at Lakewood, however, illustrated that we have not passed the point of no return; and that building healthy local food systems centered on fundamental human collaboration, sustainable resources, and our oft-uttered measures of good, clean, and fair can be as close as a schoolyard away.
More photos here by Chuck Samuels and Mark Overbay.