In 2005, pastry chef Merri Schwartz, had a realization: so much food knowledge and passion was trapped behind kitchen walls. So she started Growing Chefs! to enable chefs and growers to share their valuable understanding of food sustainability, nutrition, and local agriculture with local communities. Since then, the program has taken root in elementary schools across Metro Vancouver.
Growing Chefs! runs a unique gardening and cooking program for elementary schools to get children in grades 1-6 excited about growing, cooking, and eating nutritious foods. Andrea Carlson (Burdock & Co.), Robert Clark (the Fish Counter), Tret Jordan (Homer St. Café), and Robert Belcham (Campagnolo) are among the many dedicated volunteers who have helped take kids on a hands-on journey through a sustainable food system. Students learn how to plant and care for a garden, make a salad with all six parts of a plant, pickle vegetables, make a stock from scraps, and use different herbs. They participate in activities that teach them about urban agriculture, sustainable food choices, health and nutrition. And, they learn how to follow recipes and acquire basic cooking skills. At the end of the program, students put their new chops to the test with a final cooking lesson like a friendly stir-fry competition.
“Our program occurs in the classroom but what I find most inspiring is how the lessons are reaching beyond the classroom walls and going home with the students,” says Amanda Adams, Program Coordinator at Growing Chefs! “Last year, I received a call from a mother of a student. She introduced herself as a nutritionist, telling me how healthy eating was always something the strived to instill the importance of in her children. Yet it was always a struggle to get her son to even be interested in trying vegetables at the dinner table. So she was quite surprised when he suddenly came home excited about eating kale, peas, and spinach, asking for her help to prepare recipes he had learned through our program.”
Shannon Boudreau is a Growing Chefs! volunteer and a firm believer in food education. She is so passionate about the program’s mission that she will be cooking in support of Growing Chefs! in this year’s DinnerPartyYVR. “At the end of the program, a lot of them want to be chefs—it’s adorable. And they are so thankful.” Shannon remembers a student who asked to take leftovers home after each lesson. “On the last day, I asked her what she did with the them. She said, ‘my mom doesn’t know how to cook, and I’m gluten free. Everything we made here I can eat, so I would go home and make the exact same thing, as much as I could, for my family.’” The girl taught her mother that just because something isn’t labelled “gluten free” doesn’t mean it has gluten in it; she opened a whole new world for herself and for her family.
Children, with their boundless energy and enthusiasm, are changing how their households use food. Finn, a grade 6 student, can attest to that: “It can end up being a lot cheaper to grow your own vegetables, and they’re fresher and healthier—they haven’t travelled a long way from a farm halfway around the world. They go from your house, your garden, to your mouth.”
“It’s an empowering feeling to plant something, nurture it, and eat it,” says Amanda. “It’s such an amazing feeling for anybody of any age, but especially for a kid. Growing something themselves and then also involving kids in cooking really gets them interested in trying healthy foods they might normally turn their noses up at.”
Like a well-tended and much loved plant, Growing Chefs! is growing. It all began with two elementary school classrooms 10 years ago; this spring, the program will be in 39 classrooms across Metro Vancouver. The program will also run in two schools in Victoria, thanks to its partnership with the Island Chefs Collaborative, as well as in two schools in Kelowna.
Inspired? There are many ways to get involved with Growing Chefs!, and you don’t have to be a chef to volunteer. The time commitment is small—four hours a month from April to mid-June—for such a life-changing experience. (You can learn more about volunteering here.) Growing Chefs! is also a favourite charity for many DinnerPartyYVR hobby chefs this year—you can dine with Susanna, Marcus, and John Sebastian; Stephanie and Ron; or Shannon—and thanks to sponsors like Cressy, 100 per cent of the proceeds will be going to the charity.
DinnerPartyYVR presented by Cressey has raised over $30,000 for local charities. Tickets to a dinner in support of Growing Chefs! are available at DinnerPartyYVR.com.