Minnesota kids today aren’t likely to learn at mom’s or grandma’s elbow to bake from scratch, fry up chicken or assemble a tuna casserole. The foods they are a-changin’ (apologies to Bob Dylan).
Despite the wealth of cooking knowledge and bountiful cultural food traditions Minnesotans bring to the table, too often families are time-strapped and take-out savvy. Passing on food skills and introducing children to new cuisines has never been more important.
Whether it’s garden fresh salads, dal, or seaweed, Uli Koester, executive director of Midwest Food Connection (MFC), and his staff of three roll with the trends in their work as food educators. The organization was founded more than 20 years ago and is sponsored by local food cooperatives Eastside Co-op, Mississippi Market, Seward Co-op, and Valley Natural Foods. They offer teachers specialized curriculum in grade-appropriate units that may fulfill health, science or other school guidelines.
Last year 52 schools in the Twin Cities metro area hired Midwest Food Connection. In about half of those schools, 50 percent of students qualified for free or reduced-price lunch; at 14 of them more than 75 percent of students qualified.
The curriculum units rotate seasonally, covering themes including healthy eating, cultural food traditions, local foods, urban farming, and how climate change may affect our diet.
Teachers select the units they want, and Koester and company deploy to the schools as guest teachers in classrooms.
Koester says his program complements other access points to healthy eating such as farmers’ market bucks and healthy school lunch programs, but in the classroom there’s more time to deliver key educational concepts, and the environment is ripe for learning.
“The children in the classroom are ready to learn. They are in their best learning environment. They have their teachers there who are their partners in learning. Teachers give us 50 to 60 minutes each time we come. Every time we are reaching 25 kids. Over the course of a year we teach 7,000 kids,” he said.
Koester is pleased by public policies that foster healthy food access and affordability such as matching dollars at the farmer’s markets.
“How folks are using their SNAP money at the farmer’s markets is proof that people of many classes want to feed their children well. In general the trend is away from processed foods and sugar-sweetened foods. That I find very encouraging,” he says.
Societal and cultural factors also affect families’ relationship with food.
“There is a bit of a sea change happening in many homes,” Koester says. “Our lessons tie-in in many ways. We started a seaweed lesson this winter. One of my staff wanted to try it: climate change cuisine, how we will change the food we eat because climate is changing. I was amazed at how many children had seaweed as part of their regular diet. The parents, it’s central to them to try new things.”
But “children will always be children,” Koester says, and that means he’ll hear declarations such as “I don’t like oranges,” or “I won’t eat salad.” He takes those challenges with a grain of salt.
In Koester’s 25 years of experience, reluctance often disappears once kids get an up-close look, smell, touch and of course, taste. He might present foods to go in a salad and allow students to pick out which to use and cut them up. They might make pasta together, or salad dressing. They might talk about food, compare a food to colors, or draw what it tastes like.
On a recent day, Koester was planning to make a red lentil dal with a group of students. “It is amazing what kids will like. Maybe 80 percent will like that,” he said. He’ll send the class home with a shopping list and recipe so they and their parents can cook together.
Koester began cooking for himself after college and was active in food coops in the 1980s and ‘90s. His work is based on his belief, grown from his personal experience, that young people should and can learn to cook for themselves affordably using fresh local ingredients – ideally even from gardens they cultivate or share.
And he believes that curriculum about healthful lifestyles and food is as valuable as math and reading because how we eat and relate to food in families and as communities is an element of how we learn to be ourselves in the world.