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Chefs Move to Schools

Ellen Kassoff Gray remembers marching around the playground of Murch Elementary School. She was in second grade and the song the class was singing went somewhat like this: “March is the time farmers will start to bring out their tractors….it’s spring time again…”

This spring, as she joined her husband Chef Todd Gray in harvesting vegetables from the school’s organic garden—a garden they helped plot and plant; a garden tended to by students, teachers and parents; a garden that would serve as the model for Michelle Obama’s ‘Chefs Move to Schools’ Program.

It was this past winter when Assistant White House Chef Sam Kass personally approached Chef Gray to gather a handful of DC’s top toques to discuss how the nation’s chefs could be involved in creating menus that included healthier fare, education on nutrition, and generally taking the first step toward changing both students’ and parents’ outlook on meals from the schools—filtering into the home and vice versa. Among the ideas discussed was the adoption of local schools by each chef. Gray chose Murch and developed a program that he was asked recently to speak about at The White House and to be an integral part of a forthcoming ‘tool kit’ to be utilized across the nation.

After observing and assessing what the kids were eating for lunch, Gray noted that most of the small amount of fresh fruits and vegetables they were eating was going in the trash, not in their mouths. “It dawned on me that as chefs; what comes so naturally to us is not so accessible to kids – many of them are not invited into a kitchen or a garden on a regular basis’” said Gray in his speech. “Food is something that is put in front of them and they are told to eat it. But they have tremendous curiosity – it was not hard to get them excited. This is where a chef can have the most impact in a school – bringing this opportunity to the entire venue’s population.”

The Grays held several meetings at the school with participating parents to plot the year and they would work together in planning the garden and teaching the children. The teachers at Murch began to incorporate the idea of a school garden and cooking into the classroom where they could utilize math and science in growing and recipes.—adding to the overall educational experience.

Ellen and Todd plotted out a garden at Murch where parents, children and teachers planted greens and other vegetables. He then visited the school in time for the harvest , speaking to demonstrating ; setting up stations in the gym and outside where set up several stations in the gym or on the playground and gave kids simple tasks to do while preparing a meal for the entire group. Under the chef’s guidance they prepared an entire meal—hands on. Being involved in the process and participating in the meal from garden to table generated a new interest and excitement in creating healthy fare. “

“This ‘community cooking class’ allows for greater awareness of the importance of growing products and cooking together,” Ellen Gray said. “There is greater awareness of families and communities growing and cooking together.”