Grimaces, stuck-out tongues, and groans don’t deter Charlie Loomis from piling school lunch plates with turnips, Brussels sprouts, kohlrabi, and other plantae kingdom freaks. Neither do excuses. He simply smiles and keeps stirring. Eventually, curiosity trumps revulsion, and kids flock to try what “Mr. Chef Charlie” has to offer.
Charlie, the executive chef at Greenlife Grocery in Chattanooga, Tenn. and Asheville, N.C., proselytizes for fresh vegetables with a trowel as well as a mixing spoon. He helped start school gardens at two Chattanooga schools, Normal Park Elementary, and St. Peter’s Episcopal, where he also masterminds healthy, vegetable-laden lunches. These and other green initiatives at St. Peter’s recently were recognized by Let’s Move, Michelle Obama’s initiative to fight childhood obesity.
I found Chef Charlie when I was researching A White House Garden Cookbook (Red Rock Press, forthcoming June 1). The book traces the first season of Michelle Obama’s White House Kitchen Garden, and gives children and families ideas for how to cook with locally grown vegetables. Charlie’s enthusiasm for the gnarliest of vegetables made him one of my favorite go-to chefs.
Charlie is part of a nationwide movement to dig up schoolyards and plant vegetables where weeds once thrived. Think of it as the ultimate in experiential education. When I was in elementary school, teachers talked about how plants grow by drawing pictures of leaves and roots on the blackboard, making slashes of chalk to represent rain. Now, many schools send children right outside to plant seeds, pull up weeds, and cook with what they grow. Sustainable food guru and chef Alice Waters was one of the pioneers in school gardening when she started the Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley, Calif. in 1995. The program connects organic gardening with the kitchen, and lessons in history and math. The non-profit National Gardening Association lists more than 2,000 schools in its school garden registry. California still leads the way in school gardening, probably because its climate makes planting possible when soil in most of the nation is still frozen into unyielding clumps.
Charlie believes that convincing kids to plant seeds and pull up weeds usually requires less subterfuge than convincing them to try their vegetables. “Kids don’t think gardening is boring because they love to play in the dirt. I was out weeding the other day and kids at recess wanted to watch. They were so excited,” says Loomis, the father of two boys ages 5 and 8, and a Labradoodle named Peter Jennings.
During the day, kids also come out to help in the school gardens. They connect activities like plotting the life cycle of a plant to their science lessons. Loomis helps them bring the lessons to their lunch plates. “It’s important to incorporate food in the curriculum – otherwise, the garden is just ornamental,” he says.
Through cafeteria demonstrations, he removes the yuck factor from all kinds of garden-grown foods. Take the cabbage. At first, he admits, the idea of getting kids to even consider trying this odorous crucifer intimidated him. Then he decided to use variety as a selling point. He brought in all kinds of cabbages, including white cabbage, red cabbage, Bok Choy, Napa, Savoy, and Brussels sprouts and stacked them on the table while he made a stir fry (recipe follows).
A little reverse psychology worked wonders. “One boy kept saying , ‘Ewww, I’m not eating that!’ So I told him to step out of the line.” The boy came back, all bravado, and announced that he wanted not one, but two servings. “He had his nose plugged between his fingers and had an awful look on his face. He really liked it, though, and continued to sling back shots of stir-fried cabbage. I could tell that this was a big step for him. The next thing I knew, he and his friends were daring each other to eat the raw cabbage demo. They ate the entire thing! All that was left were a few gnawed on cabbage cores,” says Loomis.
He also sometimes points reluctant eaters out to the garden, where they can see what they planted. “Kids really like to know where their food is coming from,” he says. If they grew the food, they are more likely to at least take a bite. From small seeds, large changes can take place.
Chef Charlie’s Cabbage Stir-Fry
½ head of white or green cabbage
1 medium carrot
1 clove garlic
1 tablespoon tamari (Japanese-style soy sauce) or good-quality soy sauce
½ cup vegetable or chicken stock
1 teaspoon sugar, preferably organic cane
1 tablespoon sesame oil
1 tablespoon canola or safflower oil
½ tablespoon peeled and chopped ginger root
1 teaspoon chopped scallion, white part
½ teaspoon salt
1. Cut the cabbage into thin long strips. Peel the carrot. Cut it into matchstick-size pieces or grate it on the largest part of a box grater. Peel and finely chop the garlic.
2. In a bowl, combine the tamari, stock and sugar together.
3. In a large sauté pan, heat both oils over medium-high heat. Add the ginger, scallion, garlic, and salt. Gently shake the pan for about 3 seconds and then add the vegetables (if you used grated carrots, add these about halfway through the cooking time). Quickly toss the pan a few times to cover the vegetables in oil.
4. Add the tamari-stock mixture and turn the heat to high. Let the sauce simmer until it is reduced to a glaze, 5 to 8 minutes. Serve with brown rice and a little bit of hoisin (a type of Chinese sauce) if you have it.
Recipe from A White House Garden Cookbook (Red Rock Press, June, 2010),
Author Photography by Jordan Schnee