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‘It’s an alien! A spaceship!’ Nope. It’s RomanescoPrint

Food & Farming | October 16, 2013 | By Meghan McDermott

Kids at Traverse Heights Elementary tried Romanesco cauliflower
Nope, it's not an alien. It's Romanesco cauliflower, a strange-shaped veggie grown by Lutz Farms in northwest Michigan. (Photo: Daniel Marbury)

“It looks like a baby alien!” “A space ship!” “A forest of mini Christmas trees!”

Those were just a few of the remarks I heard when I arrived at Traverse Heights Elementary School in Traverse City to promote the locally grown produce being served in the cafeteria.

What vegetable could provoke such an engaged and dramatic response from hungry students? On Sept. 17, the “baby alien” in question was a head of Romanesco cauliflower, grown by Lutz Farms in Kaleva and served up for lunch.

Romanesco cauliflower, for those unfamiliar with this broccoli cousin, does look a bit extraterrestrial at first glance. It’s easy to see how curious kids might come up with more than a few imaginative identities for this brilliant brassica, with its lime-green hue and a spiky, multifaceted surface. But there’s much more to this funky vegetable than its appearance; Romanesco is rich in vitamin C and contains more beta-carotene than standard white cauliflower.

A Traverse Heights student considers trying the strange-looking Romanesco, served up in the salad bar as florets.
A Traverse Heights student considers trying the strange-looking Romanesco, served up in the salad bar as florets. (Photo: Daniel Marbury)

Roasted Romenesco florets were served on the salad bar, and while they cooked version was considerably less alien in appearance, many children seemed wary of adding it to their tray.  But with a little encouragement and an interactive display of the variety of cauliflower colors, shapes and sizes, many were persuaded to give this veggie a shot.

And if the colorful spread failed to entice them, there was always the promise of being able to vote.

Ah, the cafeteria tasting vote. The power of the voting booth cannot be overestimated; it gives students a sense of ownership, choice, and autonomy while demonstrating the effectiveness of farm to school education. Encouraging children to cast a ballot for “tried it,” “liked it,” or “loved it” seems to be the tipping point between kids trying a new vegetable and opting out. “If you try just a little bit you get to vote!” usually gets the attention of even the most hesitant child—and a majority of the time all it takes is one tiny bite to convince them that the lime green spiky stuff on the lunch line not only looks cool, but tastes pretty good, too.

We’ve got the numbers to back it up. On Sept. 17, 135 Traverse Heights students cast a ballot; 96 of them voted “loved it,” 11 “tried it” and 28 “liked it.” Not bad for something they thought came from Mars just minutes before casting their vote.

Of 125 students who cast a ballot, 11 "tried" the Romanesco, 28 "liked" it--and 96 "loved" it.
Of 125 students who cast a ballot, 11 "tried" the Romanesco, 28 "liked" it--and 96 "loved" it. (Photo: Daniel Marbury)

The voting system carries into the classroom as well, though often through raised hands instead of paper ballots. The following week at Interlochen Elementary, I was able to introduce students to the Fibonacci sequence by showcasing natural spiraled beauties like Romanesco in the company of sunflowers, pinecones, seashells, and succulents. By taking a multidisciplinary approach and encouraging children to try new things, we end up with kids learning and discovering something they enjoy—a win for all sides.

There’s another reason I love using the voting system: almost as good as seeing kids’ expressions as they try (and find they love) a vegetable for the first time is knowing that the data you’ve collected will help many of the players involved in farm to school work- teachers, parents, administrators, kitchen staff, and volunteers- demonstrate the very earthly effects of farm to school education.

Meghan McDermott shows off the newcomer to the salad bar, Romanesco.
Meghan McDermott shows off the newcomer to the salad bar, Romanesco. (Photo: Daniel Marbury)