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‘Hello, baby carrots’: D.C. kids learn how to garden and cook vegetables

Kindergarten students at Whittier Elementary School inspect the status of carrot plants as they learn about food in the school's garden in Northwest Washington's Brightwood neighborhood. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

A previous version of this article incorrectly identified Jennifer Mampara as director of education for FoodPrints. She is FreshFarm's director of education. The article has been corrected.

Rebecca Helgerson lifted up a white sheet that covered a bed of arugula outside of Whittier Elementary School in Northwest Washington’s Brightwood neighborhood. The class of kindergartners surrounding her just planted the vegetable the week before.

“What do you see? Do you see the little babies?” Helgerson asked the group of 5- and 6-year-olds. “If you want to, you can take one little finger and say, ‘Hello, little babies.’ ”

Nearly a dozen kindergartners lifted their tiny fingers to wave to the small plant. “Hello, little babies,” they said in unison.

One of the students told Helgerson: “They look like a little heart.”

The lesson earlier this month was part of curriculum developed by FreshFarm FoodPrints, a D.C.-based educational program that has partnered with 19 schools across the city and works with about 7,000 kids. Students learn how to grow, harvest and cook all kinds of different plants, but they also get lessons in social and emotional learning, English, language arts, mathematics and other subjects.

The program began developing in 2005 when FreshFarm, a D.C.-based organization that focuses on agriculture and food access, received a grant to create an educational program. It kicked off in 2009 when two educators — Jennifer Mampara, who previously taught at Watkins Elementary School, and Barbara Percival, a volunteer master gardener at Watkins — partnered to create a program that integrated food education and garden-based science education.

It started with a class of about 200 first- and third-graders at Watkins. But soon after its inception, schools on Capitol Hill learned of the program and reached out to integrate it into their curriculum.

“The idea originally was to support the academic curriculum through hands-on experiences with cooking and gardening, which would be a more effective form of nutrition education than teaching kids about nutrients,” said Mampara, who is FreshFarm’s director of education.

The program places FoodPrints staff in schools who work alongside teachers as they lead lessons on food. The students are taught how to use all five of their senses when interacting with a food item. When they try something new, they tell their instructors how it feels and smells, in addition to how it tastes.

Since its start in 2009, the program has slowly added more schools and has secured funding to expand — in the past year, it has added its curriculum to five schools. Whittier Elementary School was one of them. Federal money doled out through the American Rescue Plan Act helped support the school’s budget, so they could bring FoodPrints into the school.

In a lesson earlier this month Helgerson explained to the kindergartners how plants have particular seasons they grow best in.

“Now that we’re in the winter, the basil doesn’t grow anymore,” Helgerson told the class. “Can we say goodbye to the basil?”

“Goodbye, basil,” called out the students, as they waved to the plant.

They moved onto another plant bed that was filled with carrots. Helgerson told the class that the vegetable loves the cold weather, so it was growing healthily.

Again, the students raised one of their fingers as they pet the soil around the plant and said in unison: “Hello, baby carrots.”

Whittier Principal Tiffany Johnson heard about FoodPrints through social media and said she knew she wanted to bring it to the school to help teach kids about urban sustainability. Since the FoodPrints program began at Whittier in September, she’s noticed a difference with her students — they’re more alert during the day, they’re conscious about what they eat, and they’re using the experience to identify vegetables that can grow in their own homes. Even in the school cafeteria, the students have started holding each other accountable about making sure everyone is composting.

“It just lets me know this is one of the best investments I could have made,” Johnson said.

In the Greenway neighborhood in Southeast Washington, FoodPrints has been a part of Kimball Elementary School’s curriculum for about four years.

During a class last month, Darius Thomas, a fifth-grader at the school, worked on cooking a sweet potato quesadilla at the stovetop in the school’s kitchen classroom. Margie Sollee, a FoodPrints instructor, guided him as he walked through the recipe, telling him where to place his hands so he could avoid getting burned and what spices he should add.

Darius closed the tortilla of the quesadilla with ease. He used his spatula to flatten it out more so the sweet potato would spread out.

“You hear that beautiful sizzling — that’s what you want it to sound like,” Sollee told Darius. “That’s great.”

Darius has known Sollee since he was 7.

“I always thought I didn’t know how to cook, and then I came here, and Ms. Sollee, you know, helped me,” said Darius, who is now 10.

When Kimball had the opportunity to renovate its school back in 2018, it chose to add a kitchen classroom — complete with a stovetop, a built-in oven and plenty of prep space. It also has an outdoor courtyard where the school garden is. The students plant sweet potatoes, eggplant, kale and other vegetables.

Kimball Principal Eric Dabney said it was an intentional choice, because they wanted the FoodPrints program to grow. Dabney, who started his career as a chef and then transitioned into education, said he loved how FoodPrints taught children proper techniques in the kitchen, such as how to fully clean their hands.

Plus, the program brings bags of produce that children can take home to make the recipes they learn in classes and exposes them to ingredients that they may not have had access to before.

Back at Whittier, the kindergartners were learning about broccoli for the first time. Helgerson passed out a bowl with both roasted and raw broccoli to each student. She reminded them not to say “ew,” if they disliked the taste, but rather: “I’m still learning to like broccoli.”

The class of kindergartners lifted both pieces of broccoli to smell it and examine it. Some chose to take a bite.

Helgerson asked each student what they preferred. One studied a piece of raw broccoli, then held it up as her choice as she told Helgerson: “It looks like green hair.”

Leaders hope the food lessons students are learning will stay with them long-term.

“We always talk about how you bring up a child at that foundational level, and they carry it with them through their lives,” Dabney said. “All of these kids, no matter what career path or what choices they make in life will have very strong nutrient-based, culinary experiences.”