“Any adult who says that kids don’t like vegetables has no idea!” declares Sandy McKelvey. Over the past four and a half years, the Cold Spring-based founder of Hudson Valley Farm to School has been bringing farmers, chefs — and vegetables by the bucketload — into classrooms in the Haldane, Garrison, and Beacon school districts.
“The kids get so excited,” she says. “Just today I attended a health fair where kids from kindergarten through high school were tasting different fresh vegetables. I brought in so much kale, spinach, and sugar snap peas, and there was nothing left. Kids were grabbing handfuls and stuffing it in their mouths.”
Five years ago, when McKelvey’s daughter entered kindergarten in the Haldane district, fresh local produce had no presence in her school. By chance, McKelvey learned about the National Farm to School Network, a group that offers resources and strategies to improve the children’s diet and get local foods into school cafeterias.
“It was a learning curve. I didn’t know what went into cafeteria food, and that it’s not up to the school what they serve — there are national regulations and a lot of restrictions,” says McKelvey. “I started with baby steps to get the administration, faculty, and students on board, and to build from there.”
McKelvey attended a National Farm to School conference and learned how to get kids to change their behavior. “You get them involved with experiential learning, such as gardening and cooking. If you do that, they take ownership and pride, and then you see a change. I thought, ‘Why not learn all about one specific vegetable, from the seed to how it grows, when it’s planted, and its nutritional components?’ ”
In 2010, McKelvey started a pilot program in Haldane called Chef in the Classroom. (The program has since expanded into Garrison and Beacon.) During these monthly taste tests, students cook a dish that centers around a local vegetable currently in season; the dish is later served as a special occasion treat in the cafeteria. Enthusiasm for the program is palpable, says McKelvey. “Now the kids ask each other, ‘What’s your vegetable?’ ”
In Haldane and Beacon (where McKelvey partners with Hudson Valley Seed and Common Ground Farm as part of the Beacon Farm to School Collaborative), local farmers talk to students about their lives and work, and a gardening expert offers hands-on activities. Kids receive veggie fact sheets and recipes to take home — and, in some cases, even the vegetable itself. “When kids come home and tell their parents, ‘I have this recipe I want to try out,’ you know it’s making a difference,” McKelvey says. “It might even change their parents’ attitudes.”