How many fifth graders do you know that would get excited about parsnips? How many even know what a parsnip is? As a FoodCorps service member at Boyne Falls Public Schools, I know about a dozen fifth graders that were thrilled to hear about this vegetable, the name of which is uncommon to most elementary students. Parsnips have been on the menu as January’s “Harvest of the Month” product, and the fifth grade class at Boyne Falls has been running this month’s school-wide taste test.
Since the beginning of the school year taste tests have been held monthly in the cafeteria. Using Harvest of the Month guides, a resource created through Groundwork, a local produce item is featured each month to showcase fruits and vegetables seasonally grown in northern Michigan. Following FoodCorps’ model of taste testing in school cafeterias to encourage students to try new things, a taste test is conducted where students are able to try the featured item and vote whether they “tried it,” “liked it,” or “loved it.” The overall goal of the taste tests is to offer student-driven menu choices on the lunch line.
For the past five months, I’ve conducted these taste tests in the cafeteria with support from Boyne Falls food service director, Chef Nathan Bates. I also spent time working closely with the fifth grade students, observing their passion for working in the kitchen when we held a salsa-making challenge, and watching their knowledge of marketing and advertising grow as we learned about the secret strategies of food advertising. Having combined these skills, I knew they were ready to run their own taste test, and it was time for me to hand over the reins.
As soon as winter break was over, we got to work. We began by discussing why we hold taste tests at school, outlining our timeline and revealing January’s featured item — parsnips. I was surprised that no one moaned or groaned about this weird-sounding vegetable. In fact, they were excited! I was reminded by one student that they were already familiar with this vegetable, recalling a parsnip pancake lesson we did together last year. The parsnip lesson had come full circle.
Over the next week, the fifth graders worked diligently on their assigned jobs, which included promoting the taste test during the school’s morning and afternoon announcements, to creating posters or advertisements to display during the taste test. Their teacher seamlessly employed other subjects such as computers and typing and math practice to help them make posters. The fifth graders’ excitement was palpable throughout the week in anticipation of the big day.
The morning of the taste test, we reviewed our knife and food safety skills as we prepped the parsnips for Chef Nathan to roast and mash. Finally, it was time for the taste test. Throughout the lunch period, fifth graders were buzzing with energy, encouraging their peers, school staff and even upperclassmen to try parsnips and vote on which recipe they liked best. The event was a huge success. The results showed that this taste test garnered the most voter participation to date. Mashed parsnips won the day with 60 percent of the votes.
In my FoodCorps service, this project shines as the ultimate example of what is possible when kids are brought into contact with fresh, local food in schools. Students develop independence and confidence and can apply these skills to hands-on experiences. They are able to interact and engage with their peers and frame healthy eating in a positive light — a lesson they’ll carry with them into adulthood.
Check out Groundwork’s Parsnip Harvest of the Month brochure here.