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“Harvest-of-the-Month” program brings local food and farmers to Columbia classrooms

Ashley Reese
Students at West Boulevard Elementary peel apples as part of the Harvest-of-the-Month program

  Leemer Cernohlavek stood in the front of a classroom, scrolling through pictures of his apple orchard on the teacher’s smart board. He was describing his work to second and third graders, who sat quietly listening on a rainbow-colored square rug.

As soon as he finished speaking, hands shot up in the air. The kids were antsy to ask their questions the whole time.  “How big is your orchard?” one asked.  “What happens to the trees in the winter?” said another. “How do you know if bugs are in an apple?” a third chimed in.

The farmer was at West Boulevard Elementary as part of the Harvest-of-the-Month program. The program brings farmers and their produce to local elementary schools and engages the students in a variety of activities, including the farmers’ presentations and cooking something with the produce they bring. 

Cernohlavek said he’s volunteered to participate in the program at least four times.

“I think it’s a good program,” he said. “It gives the kids a chance to ask pretty good questions like they do and gives them a viewpoint of what farming is all about.”

Steve Riesenberg is the Harvest-of-the-Month Coordinator. He said the program’s main goal is to promote eating locally and healthy.

“It’s about promoting a culture that values local foods and values slow foods that we cook ourselves more than McDonalds, and so that’s a tough battle to fight with the kids,” Riesenberg said. “But I think by having the farmers go in, and by doing it in an exciting and engaging way, that it does a lot to promote that.”

At last Thursday’s event, students at West Boulevard elementary used apples from Cernohlavek’s orchard to make cooked apples. Adult volunteers helped the students peel and cut the apples, and then recipes were passed around and the students helped measure, stir and cook the ingredients. The students were given samples of the apples both before and after they cooked.

Retired teacher Marguerite Krump taught at West Boulevard Elementary when the program was first introduced. She now volunteers to help each month.

“It’s a tremendous program,” Krump said. “Kids get to experience food in a whole different way… I think it gives them a little bit different point of view than if they read it in a book.”

Mark Zacher is a member of Slow Food Katy Trail, the local chapter of the international organization Slow Food. The organization has been responsible for the Harvest of the Month program since it began.

“Slow Food is an organization that promotes eating and making slow food, which is essentially food made from scratch using locally produced produce,” he said.

Zacher said Slow Food hopes the program will help connect kids to where their food comes from.

“That’s one of the things we’re trying to promote: is that personal connection with the local producers who grow the food and where they can get the food like at the farmers market,” Zacher said.

Riesenberg said the Harvest of the Month program is trying to partner with the local farmers market to give the kids tokens so they could visit the market and buy some locally-grown food.

“I think if the kid comes home and he’s excited about the farmer he met that sells at the market and about the apples he or she ate that were grown 10 miles away, that that excitement could spread to the parents and we could see a couple more families that start regularly shopping at the farmers market,” Riesenberg said.

He said the program began at Lee Elementary School seven years ago, and it received such a positive response that the Parent-Teacher Association of that school took it over.

“So I think when the parents see what’s going on and see what the kids bring home from the program that they get really excited about it,” he said. “I don’t know any parent that wouldn’t want their child to be healthy.”

Riesenberg said they’ve also received positive responses from the teachers, who appreciate how the program not only gives the students that extra, hands-on experience, but how the volunteers also try to tie the activities to the curriculum.

Riesenberg said his own teaching background helped him get involved.

“As a teacher, this is some of the most excited that I’ve ever seen students,” he said. “When they are cutting open an apple, or grating potatoes, they’re just really excited and really engaged in what they’re doing right in front of them, and it brings me a lot of joy to see that excitement and know that we’re making a small difference for these children.”

The Harvest-of-the-Month program now takes place monthly at West Boulevard and Benton elementary schools. Riesenberg said they hope to expand to other elementary schools as funding becomes available.

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