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Farms Finest: Stealth health lessons from the garden

Third-grader Molly McManus, in the Aspen Elementary School Magical Garden.

It is a cool, almost wet morning, and energy levels are high. Second-grader Nik Kuhn shrieks, "I found a huge worm, the biggest worm ever!"

A thick fragrance of moist earth and onion is lingering in the air. "Monster worms" are dangling from tiny hands in amazement, and simple potatoes have been transformed into golden nuggets for a treasure hunt.

This is Aspen Elementary School's Magical Garden having its own fall garden harvest. To the children, it's special adventure, and getting hands dirty is the price of admission.

The school cafeteria is preparing for its very own farm-to-table feast. This all is happening in conjunction with Colorado Proud School Meal Day on Wednesday.

Tenille Folk is the chef/food service manager for both the elementary and middle schools. For Folk, this is a creative lesson plan about healthy food and nutrition. She calls it "stealth health."

A child learns many special lessons while in a garden, lessons seasoned with sensory experiences of smell, taste, sound, sight and touch. Those types of lessons are planted for a lifetime.

At Wednesday's special lunch, which both parents and children will attend, not only will there be local Colorado food but also products even closer to home. This is food the children planted during the spring and harvested from their Magical Garden using their own hands. Schoolchildren can show off the kale, potatoes, carrots and more from the school garden.

"The Colorado Proud School Meal Day program is a division of Colorado Agriculture," said Wendy White, marketing specialist for the Colorado Department of Agriculture. "Our goal is to expose children to the bounty of food we have right here in Colorado. For the last 10 years, on the second or third Wednesday in September, we connect children to local agriculture products through a special school lunch."

Having a school garden for children deepens their appreciation for food. Planting tiny, paper-thin carrot seeds and then pulling up fat carrots four months later is amazing to a child. Sharing this story and their carrots with their parents over lunch is a memory forever.

"Creating healthier diets and a more sustainable (and affordable) food system in America is enormously important to everyone," Folk said. "There are sky-high rates of childhood obesity. Meanwhile, millions of children still have a limited access to healthy, fresh food.

"Teaching children about the benefits of eating a nutritious diet and showing how to eat healthfully is invaluable to the student's success."

For the Harvest Festival menu, here is what's cooking: pasta from Pappardelle's, of Denver, with a marinara-meat sauce using Crystal River beef and local tomatoes, seasoned with elementary school Magical Garden spices, paired with chunks of homemade garlic bread incorporating freshly crushed garlic from the garden and a salad bar filled with Magical Garden greens.

The Colorado Department of Agriculture's website states, "Proper nutrition is critical if our educational programs and our students are going to continue to excel. Colorado agriculture contributes $40 billion to the states economy and these foods should be incorporated into our local school food programs as often as possible."

Agriculture and food education for children is a vital link to carry forward for a healthy future. Actually being in a vegetable garden and feeling the soil imparts invaluable food lessons.

Knowing that the carrots that they grew themselves look and taste different from the ones in the grocery store is big. Industrially produced food is grown primarily for looks, shipping and meeting knife-edge bottom lines. Nutritional values and flavors of the greatest levels are grown close to home.

Food education for children is available in many methods, from videos and games, to cute photo albums. Yet nothing replaces what a child can learn by actually being in the garden. Awareness extends to funny-looking caterpillars chewing tomato plants, bees gathering pollen and, yes, new weeds growing the most quickly of all. Questions will be asked about nature's beautiful systems. Small realizations are made about this complex web we refer to as the environment. Food supplies are dependent on this, and we are, as well.

Cheers for schools having people like Folk and her staff, who serve up great food with healthy lessons. For more information on this special school food day, the link is http://coloradofarmtoschool.org.

Joni Keefe moved to the Roaring Fork Valley after a career in landscape design. She is passionate about local food and agriculture. For more information, her website is Farmsfinest.com, or follow her on Twitter. Connect at joni@farmsfinest.com.