ST. MICHAELS — Kids munching kale chips? Scarfing down pumpkin pancakes? Blending nutritious smoothies and drinking every drop?
That’s what’s happening in St. Michaels every week as Bay Hundred farmer Jena Paice takes children on agricultural and culinary adventures to learn where food comes from, grow greens and radishes, prepare healthy dishes and enjoy their culinary creations with their families.
“It’s fun because I really like knowing where things come from,” Hannah Willis, said. The third-grader at St Michaels Elementary School said she “loves gardening and planting.”
Nolan Fitzroy, another third-grader, said he loves to “plant plants and cook new plants.”
From learning about creating healthy soil to preparing a family feast, the “Green Team” of St. Michaels Community Center gets to experience the full meaning of where their food comes from, the importance of farmers in their community and why it’s important to eat healthy.
Paice has been developing this comprehensive program for local elementary school children in St. Michaels for more than three years.
“The kids just light up with excitement, running through the fields,” Paice said. “It’s truly one of my greatest joys as a farmer.”
The program is called “Farm to Table,” and the kids in the fall, spring and summer classes are known as the Green Team, and the little guys — the kindergartners, first- and second-graders — are called Bean Sprouts.
Between seasonal class sessions, “We still have to take care of the garden or go out and help on the farms,” SMCC Director Trish Payne said. So children who want to continue to help out are welcome in between semesters. It’s kind of like an informal 4-H experiences, Payne said.
In addition to Paices’s farm Spirit Grower, Green Team students, who range in age from kindergarten through 5th grades, have been welcomed to most local farms in the area and have had the opportunity to gather warm eggs from mother hens, witness fresh rows of newly planted crops, pull fresh greens, dig potatoes and radishes, pluck other produce from the soil and witness newborn animals joining the farm family.
“They learn to prepare dirt, and the role of worms in soil health. And whatever they plant, they eat,” Payne said.
Third-grader Evelyn Mautz has been with the program from the beginning. “I like that we made a lot of healthy foods,” along with the “experience of gardening,” she said.
“I never knew about mustard greens,” Evelyn said. “Last year we had lots of fun making egg muffins.”
Paice said the kids love the muffins made with fresh eggs, kale, cheese, onions and garlic.
Paice and the Green Team maintain two garden beds at the SMCC Community Garden in St. Michaels. Besides learning about proper planting, harvesting techniques and raising livestock, kids also get a comprehensive education about food groups, building a healthy diet and cooking nutritious recipes with the treasures they reap from the gardens and farms.
“The community center is trying to build life skills,” Payne said. “It’s been a fabulous program for kids.”
“When we first started the program, we asked the kids, ‘Where does food come from?’ and they answered, ‘The grocery store.’” Payne said. “So we asked, ‘Where does the grocery store get it from?’ and they said, ‘I don’t know.’”
So the kids hit the road to learn about the source of the food before it’s loaded on trucks and placed on store shelves.
They have visited Stonehouse Farm in Trappe, Kings Berries in Ridgely, Blades Orchard in Federalsburg, Cottingham Farm in Wittman, Pop’s Old Place Farm in Hurlock, Tommy Newnam’s York Hazzard Farm in McDaniel, and Carol Bean’s Know Good Farm near Tilghman.
On their visit to Bean’s farm, the children learned where eggs come from, Payne said. “They were just amazed that the chickens were running all over the place, and they would sit in these little boxes and lay eggs.”
“Carol said, ‘Let’s gather some eggs, so you can take some home with you,’” Payne said. “They didn’t know what that meant, but they saw Carol do it.”
“This one little boy was afraid the chicken was going to bite him,” but Bean directed him to “gently put his hand underneath, so he did — and was surprised. “’Oh my god, it’s hot,’ he said. It was so funny because he had no idea.” Payne said. “We told him that’s because the egg was in the mommy chicken. He said, ‘So this is a baby chicken?’” Bean then explained how chickens hatch.
“He protected his egg like it was a piece of gold, and when we got on the bus, he had it in both hands, protecting it so he could tell his mom about the chickens and the eggs,” Payne said. “It was really funny.”
“The day that we told them we were having a roast chicken was a little traumatic because they realized we killed one of the chickens,” Payne said, laughing. “It’s a real learning experience, but they get used to it after a while, and then they start saying, ‘Did they get their baby chicks yet?’ or ‘Are they ready to be cooked?’”
“I loved watching (the children) with our heritage breed turkeys,” Bean said. “They’re very curious, very social animals, so when the kids came, they were completely enthralled by them because (the turkeys) are very talkative animals. They were making the kids laugh, and the kids’ laughter would make the turkeys gobble more. So it was like a call-and-response — it was adorable.”
“The history and heritage of this area is so agriculturally-based,” Bean said. “I love to be able to share with kids who (may not have) that personal experience, and share this area with them in a small way. I think it’s important, too, to keep those traditions alive.”
At the end of each After School Kids (A.S.K.) semester and summer class session, the families of the students are invited to share the season’s bounty with a meal prepared by the class.
“Who knows, one of them may grown up to be a farmer or a veterinarian, but they’re all going to be eaters and consumers of food, so I just feel like that part of it is important, too, Bean said. “(To) have some notion of what goes into bringing food to the table, even if it’s a fun, interactive way — it still lays the groundwork for understanding that piece of the puzzle.”
The sensory nature of working with food and the communal nature of sharing a meal together are important to Paice. As they learn, prepare food and eat it, the students share their day’s “apples” — the good part of their day — as well as the day’s “onions,” or things that were not as positive.
At the end of the semester, the kids share what they’ve learned with the last family meal together. “Families love it,” Paice said. “It connects the dots.”
In some ways, preparing and sharing meals accomplishes what it always has, and that’s something Paice loves experiencing with the kids as well as watching the kids connect with their families over good food.
The “Green Team” is offered to area kids in grades kindergarten through fifth grade. For more information on how to participate or to learn more about the program, call 410-745-6073.