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If you didn't know that spinach tastes sweeter when it's grown in cool temperatures, it's likely you haven't been digging around in a winter garden. The White House has just planted a slew of cold-weather vegetables, and a group of students from an after-school cooking class in Washington, D.C., were among the first to visit.
"See these metal bars?" asks Sam Kass, the 29-year-old White House assistant chef, pointing to metal hoops arching over the garden. "Yep," reply the gaggle of 9- and 10-year-olds who huddle around him — their feet muddy in the rainy afternoon.
Kass explains that the bars will be wrapped in plastic, which creates a hoop house so the plants can grow all winter.
"Do you grow pizza here?" asks Eric Melton. No pizza, Kass says. But there are rows of spinach.
Kass invites the kids to tase the spinach, bending down to snip off some leaves. "It's pretty sweet." The kids give him quizzical looks, but they all tasted a leaf or two. "Pretty cool, huh?" says Kass.
Though it may seem counterintuitive, some vegetables — such as spinach, broccoli and potatoes — actually taste sweeter as the weather cools.
As long as there is decent sunlight, the plant continues to change sunlight into energy. During the process of photosynthesis the plant also produces glucose, or sugar. But in the cold weather:
"The cool decreases the rate of respiration," says Brent McCown, a professor of horticulture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
This means the plant slows down the burning off energy, therefore using up less sugar. As a consequence, there's a little more sweet left in the plant.
The visit is a chance for Kass to show off the garden. But it's also an opportunity for him to listen. He came to the White House from Chicago where he cooked for the Obamas. He still spends a lot of his time preparing meals, but he's got a second, "wonkier" title, too: As Food Initiative Coordinator he's the point person in the East Wing on matters related to children's nutrition and promoting healthy lifestyles — both of which First Lady Michelle Obama has made high priorities.
The focus comes at a time when only 13 percent of adolescents eat the recommended servings of fruits and vegetables, according to a Centers for Disease Control report. And 1 in 4 children in the nation is overweight or obese.
From Garden To Table
After the kids pick some greens from the garden, Kass gathers the group and leads them into the kitchen.
For the last few months these kids have been slicing, baking, touching and smelling all kinds of new foods and recipes. They're learning as part of an afterschool program that's up and running in cities around the country. It was started by Share Our Strength, a non-profit leader in fighting hunger and poor nutrition. Teaming up with volunteer chefs, in what the group dubs "Operation Frontline," the group has enrolled more than 288,000 children in nutrition-education classes. In Washington, D.C., a partner organization, the Capital Area Food Bank, organizes and staffs the class with registered dietitians. A big part of the program is teaching kids how to use good ingredients to make simple, healthy food — all while staying within a budget.
Back at their teaching kitchen at the after-school program, the revelation that spinach can taste a little sweet really impressed the kids, though not as sweet as what they're used to — sugar. A few weeks ago they tried a baked apple recipe.
"We'll add some sugar ... just a little sugar," instructs chef Charmion Wood, who volunteers in the after-school program one afternoon a week. The class is held at Martha's Table, an organization that serves at-risk children and families. A few weeks back she introduced them to a baked-apple recipe.
"Almost there" Wood leans over the kids' shoulders as they slice. "It's better if you don't using a sawing motion" she says. "There you go!" To jazz up the taste, the kids sprinkle cinnamon on the fruit and put the apples in the oven.
To help visualize the stark difference between the sugar in the baked apples and what you'd find in candy or soda the instructor introduces props: a packet of Skittles and a 64-ounce Big Gulp.
"Who likes candy?" asks Erika Pijai, a registered dietitian with the Capital Area Food Bank, which partners with Share Our Strength.
Pijai helps them interpret the nutrition facts on the candy label. She explains 45 grams of sugar equals about 11 teaspoons. So the kids spoon 11 teaspoons of table sugar into measuring cups. Add in the 64-ounce Big Gulp — that's another 59 teaspoons.
"Whoa — that's a lot of sugar!" calls out Randi Smith. Staring at big mounds of sugar, Pijai doesn't need to do a lot of explaining. All the kids seem to have gotten the message.
"Don't eat too much sugar," says Bryant Ebanns. "If you eat junk food there'll be like a hole in your heart!"
1 package of frozen spinach, thawed and water pressed out
One 7 oz container of Greek Yogurt (can substitute w/ low-fat sour cream)
1/2 cup of chopped cilantro or basil
4 Tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
Developed by Charmion Wood, volunteer chef instructor with Share Our Strength's Operation Frontline Program of the Capital Area Food Bank in Washington, D.C.
It's a draconian interpretation of "death by junk food," but lots of the students seem to be making a connection between food and health. Kass says he's impressed with what Share Our Strength and its partners are doing in terms of giving kids hands-on skills.
"It doesn't take much," says Kass. "A couple of sprinkles of cinnamon makes them actors and gives them ownership in the process." Then they're much more willing to try new foods. The test of this theory came a week later when the kids made a White House-inspired spinach dip and a spinach salad.
Woods leads the kids in making a simple dip with four ingredients. Randi hadn't tried this kind of recipe before: "This is like the best thing I've had all day," she says.
Share our Strength is scaling up in cities around the country. "This is our fastest growing program by far," says executive director Bill Shore. He explains that demand is high as more communities look for ways to address obesity. And Kass says he's impressed: "I think Share Our Strength is doing a beautiful job in giving young people practical tools."
But he adds it's not the whole answer to the challenges of getting people to eat better.
The Share Our Strength classes show that you can lead kids to spinach, and teach them to make great-tasting recipes. But clearly there are obstacles. The dishes take preparation and planning. And when it comes to after-school snacks, the reality is that, for some kids, on some days, Skittles, soda and chips may be easier to come by.