Planting Seeds: How a nonprofit helps kids learn to love vegetables.
ONE MONDAY MORNING, shortly after the start of spring, 21 fourth-graders and their teacher trooped through a garden gate at the corner of 25th Avenue South and South Walker Street in Rainier Valley on a field trip to Green Plate Special.
Executive director Laura Dewell greeted them. A chef for more than two decades, Dewell owned the popular Queen Anne restaurant Pirosmani back in the 1990s. Today, instead of chef whites, she’s wearing a quilted vest and orange-and-blue striped handwarmers, looking every inch the urban farmer she’s become since founding GPS, a nonprofit focused on food and education, in 2011.
Six hens rustled and clucked in their distant coop as she led the students past the garden’s 20 raised beds, some dormant, others flaunting herbs, pea vines or flowering stalks of fava beans that were almost as high as a 9-year-old’s eyes. Skirting a big red Woodstone pizza oven, they passed beneath the gnarly branches of a 100-year-old walnut tree and clambered up the steps to the cheery GPS kitchen.
Over the course of three hours, rotating in small groups through the garden and kitchen, the kids would pick and taste, dig up sunchokes, plant sweet-pea seeds, inspect the greenhouse, poke into the worm bin and feed the chickens. At the end, they gathered at a long table and ate Asian-style fresh rolls with Thai dipping sauce they’d prepared.
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But first, Dewell gathered them all for a chat, asking each in turn: “What’s your favorite vegetable?” The first student, stumped for an answer, finally blurted out, “Strawberries.” Many said carrots or lettuce. Bok choy, broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower got a mention, but several insisted they won’t eat or don’t like vegetables. “Maybe we’ll change your mind,” said Dewell.
That’s why she started Green Plate Special: to challenge and empower kids to see things differently by connecting with food in the garden, in the kitchen and at the table.
Dewell watched her daughter’s interest in food wane as a young teen: “All of a sudden, she wasn’t excited or interested in the kind of food I was doing.” As a private chef and cooking teacher, Dewell noticed the same phenomenon in other families. “Having a little pea patch, and knowing that my daughter was more open to tasting everything when she was very young, it would come back to her. But I knew that a population of low-income families and people of color weren’t always getting those opportunities.”
Her target audience is middle school, an age when kids are “looking for opportunities to make choices, be a little daring … open to doing things out of their comfort level.”
GPS partners with Washington Middle School and Madrona K-8. Free field trips introduce other schools and younger students to their fee-based programs, community outreach they hope will yield more paying customers, like students from the educational support group, Rainier Scholars, who attend cooking classes.
Money is the nonprofit’s biggest hurdle. Small family foundations funded the build-out of the current site. Grants and annual fundraising galas help cover a pay-what-you-can tuition-assistance plan. (Single classes cost $50, weeklong camps $350.)
Dewell revels in success stories. A boy from Mary’s Place, an organization that works with homeless families, claimed he was allergic to vegetables. On the first day, he harvested and tasted a little Sun Gold tomato, because everyone else did. As the week progressed, he started to eat everything. One day, his sister brought him to camp, and he convinced her to try a tomato. On the last day, when campers got to fill tote bags on a garden scavenger hunt, his was overflowing. “I’m taking it back to Mary’s Place,” he said.
Another camper asked for seeds to plant peas at home. When his mother came to pick him up, he showed her the seeds and told her, “One inch down and three inches apart, that’s how you plant peas.” Before he came to GPS, his mother said, he wouldn’t eat vegetables at all.
“You plant a seed, that’s all I’m looking for. At this age, they might not come back to it for a while, but it’s in there,” says Dewell. “My hope is they’ll take that back to their families, and we’ll start to see something different going on.”