If you didn't know that spinach tastes sweeter when it's grown in cool temperatures, it's likely you haven't been digging around in a winter garden. The White House has just planted a slew of cold-weather vegetables, and a group of students from an after-school cooking class in Washington, D.C., were among the first to visit.
"See these metal bars?" asks Sam Kass, the 29-year-old White House assistant chef, pointing to metal hoops arching over the garden. "Yep," reply the gaggle of 9- and 10-year-olds who huddle around him — their feet muddy in the rainy afternoon.
Kass explains that the bars will be wrapped in plastic, which creates a hoop house so the plants can grow all winter.
"Do you grow pizza here?" asks Eric Melton. No pizza, Kass says. But there are rows of spinach.
Kass invites the kids to tase the spinach, bending down to snip off some leaves. "It's pretty sweet." The kids give him quizzical looks, but they all tasted a leaf or two. "Pretty cool, huh?" says Kass.
The visit is a chance for Kass to show off the garden. But it's also an opportunity for him to listen. He came to the White House from Chicago where he cooked for the Obamas. He still spends a lot of his time preparing meals, but he's got a second, "wonkier" title, too: As Food Initiative Coordinator he's the point person in the East Wing on matters related to children's nutrition and promoting healthy lifestyles — both of which First Lady Michelle Obama has made high priorities.
The focus comes at a time when only 13 percent of adolescents eat the recommended servings of fruits and vegetables, according to a Centers for Disease Control report. And 1 in 4 children in the nation is overweight or obese.
From Garden To Table
After the kids pick some greens from the garden, Kass gathers the group and leads them into the kitchen.
For the last few months these kids have been slicing, baking, touching and smelling all kinds of new foods and recipes. They're learning as part of an afterschool program that's up and running in cities around the country. It was started by Share Our Strength, a non-profit leader in fighting hunger and poor nutrition. Teaming up with volunteer chefs, in what the group dubs "Operation Frontline," the group has enrolled more than 288,000 children in nutrition-education classes. In Washington, D.C., a partner organization, the Capital Area Food Bank, organizes and staffs the class with registered dietitians. A big part of the program is teaching kids how to use good ingredients to make simple, healthy food — all while staying within a budget.
Back at their teaching kitchen at the after-school program, the revelation that spinach can taste a little sweet really impressed the kids, though not as sweet as what they're used to — sugar. A few weeks ago they tried a baked apple recipe.
"We'll add some sugar ... just a little sugar," instructs chef Charmion Wood, who volunteers in the after-school program one afternoon a week. The class is held at Martha's Table, an organization that serves at-risk children and families. A few weeks back she introduced them to a baked-apple recipe.
"Almost there" Wood leans over the kids' shoulders as they slice. "It's better if you don't using a sawing motion" she says. "There you go!" To jazz up the taste, the kids sprinkle cinnamon on the fruit and put the apples in the oven.
To help visualize the stark difference between the sugar in the baked apples and what you'd find in candy or soda the instructor introduces props: a packet of Skittles and a 64-ounce Big Gulp.
"Who likes candy?" asks Erika Pijai, a registered dietitian with the Capital Area Food Bank, which partners with Share Our Strength.
Pijai helps them interpret the nutrition facts on the candy label. She explains 45 grams of sugar equals about 11 teaspoons. So the kids spoon 11 teaspoons of table sugar into measuring cups. Add in the 64-ounce Big Gulp — that's another 59 teaspoons.
"Whoa — that's a lot of sugar!" calls out Randi Smith. Staring at big mounds of sugar, Pijai doesn't need to do a lot of explaining. All the kids seem to have gotten the message.
"Don't eat too much sugar," says Bryant Ebanns. "If you eat junk food there'll be like a hole in your heart!"
It's a draconian interpretation of "death by junk food," but lots of the students seem to be making a connection between food and health. Kass says he's impressed with what Share Our Strength and its partners are doing in terms of giving kids hands-on skills.
"It doesn't take much," says Kass. "A couple of sprinkles of cinnamon makes them actors and gives them ownership in the process." Then they're much more willing to try new foods. The test of this theory came a week later when the kids made a White House-inspired spinach dip and a spinach salad.
Woods leads the kids in making a simple dip with four ingredients. Randi hadn't tried this kind of recipe before: "This is like the best thing I've had all day," she says.
Share our Strength is scaling up in cities around the country. "This is our fastest growing program by far," says executive director Bill Shore. He explains that demand is high as more communities look for ways to address obesity. And Kass says he's impressed: "I think Share Our Strength is doing a beautiful job in giving young people practical tools."
But he adds it's not the whole answer to the challenges of getting people to eat better.
The Share Our Strength classes show that you can lead kids to spinach, and teach them to make great-tasting recipes. But clearly there are obstacles. The dishes take preparation and planning. And when it comes to after-school snacks, the reality is that, for some kids, on some days, Skittles, soda and chips may be easier to come by.
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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
And I'm Linda Wertheimer. In Your Health today, if you didn't know that spinach tastes sweeter when it's grown in cold temperatures, it's likely you haven't been digging around in a winter garden. NPR's Allison Aubrey has. Welcome, Allison.
ALLISON AUBREY: Hey, Linda.
WERTHEIMER: I understand it's - you went with a group of kids who spent the last few months learning a lot about food and cooking and how they're supposed to eat better. I guess the big question is does it take?
AUBREY: Well, to answer that question, let me bring you along on a field trip with me. On one of the coldest, wettest afternoons in recent memory, I actually found myself with a group of nine and 10-year-olds tromping through a muddy patch of the south lawn of the White House.
Mr. SAM KASS (Assistant White House chef): Welcome to the White House kitchen garden.
AUBREY: That's Sam Kass, the 29-year-old assistant White House chef, who started cooking for the Obamas back when they lived in Chicago. When we met up with him here, he had sprigs of fresh snipped rosemary ready to toss into that night's dinner and mud caked to his shoes.
Mr. KASS: You'll see green.
Unidentified Child #1: You'll see pizza.
Mr. KASS: No pizza. We're not growing pizza here. But - so, but what we're going to do is you see these metal bars right here?
Mr. KASS: We're going to cover them with plastic, so that plastic's going to keep it warm enough for the plants to grow all year long.
AUBREY: Kass spends a lot of time cooking, but he's got a second, wonkier title, too. As food initiative coordinator, he's the first lady's point person on matters related to kids and nutrition and promoting healthy lifestyles, which are high priorities in the East Wing.
Mr. KASS: All right, guys, this is spinach.
Unidentified Child #2: Oh, I love spinach.
Mr. KASS: Shall we try to taste a little bit?
Unidentified Group: Yes.
Unidentified Child #3: Now, what do we do?
Mr. KASS: Now, you taste it. Is it good?
Unidentified Child #4: Yeah.
Unidentified Child #5: No.
Unidentified Child #6: Yeah.
Unidentified Child #7: Can we get some more?
Mr. KASS: Oh, it's so sweet. When it gets cold, the spinach gets a lot sweeter, because it creates more sugar to help protect it from the cold. Pretty cool, huh?
AUBREY: For the past few months, these kids have been slicing, baking, touching, smelling all kinds of new foods and recipes. It's part of an afterschool program run by volunteer chefs and started by the hunger group Share Our Strength. It's scaling up in cities around the country, and demand is high as more communities look for ways to address obesity.
These kids happen to live in D.C., so the White House field trip is a chance for Kass to both show off the garden and listen to them talk about what they've learned.
Mr. KASS: All right, guys. You ready to head up?
Unidentified Child #8: Mm, so sweet.
AUBREY: The revelation that spinach can taste a little sweet really seemed to make an impression, though this isn't the sort of sweet most are accustomed to.
Ms. CHARMION WOOD (Chef): And then we need sugar. Just a little sugar.
Unidentified Child #10: A twinkle.
AUBREY: A few weeks back, during one of the cook classes, chef Charmion Wood introduced them to a baked apple recipe.
Ms. WOOD: That's it. Almost there. There you go.
AUBREY: As they sliced fruit, the kids reeled off their favorite ways of sugaring up. Here's Randi Smith, Bryant Ebanns and Isaiah Ross.
Ms. RANDI SMITH: I like to eat Snickers and cookies.
Mr. BRYANT EBANNS: Ice cream.
Mr. ISAIAH ROSS: Yeah, and soda, too.
AUBREY: They can all tell you which foods are healthy.
Ms. SMITH: You have to eat fruits, vegetables.
AUBREY: But fourth grader Randi Smith says dessert is just so tempting.
Ms. SMITH: Because it tastes good. It looks good. So people want to go for it.
AUBREY: Lots of us can relate to that. So the point of the day's cooking lesson is that if you start with good ingredients, like fresh fruit, you don't need a lot of processed sugar. And for burst of flavor, you need spices.
Ms. PIJAI: OK. So what we're going to do is I'm going to sprinkle some cinnamon on the apple.
AUBREY: To help visualize the stark difference between the sugar and the baked apples and what you'd find in candy, their teacher - dietician Erika Pijai -gave them a measuring cup, teaspoons and a bag of table sugar.
Ms. ERIKA PIJAI (Dietician): Who likes candy?
Unidentified Child #11: Oh! I want some.
AUBREY: Their assignment was to scoop in the teaspoons of sugar equal to a pack of Skittles or a double Big Gulp.
Unidentified Group: One, two, three, four�
AUBREY: Kim Lee of the Capitol Area Food Bank assisted.
Ms. KIM LEE (Capitol Area Food Bank): Oh, my gosh. Look at how much sugar that is.
Unidentified Child #12: In a double Gulp.
Ms. PIJAI: The moral of the story is what? What can we conclude?
Mr. EBANNS: If you eat, like, junk food, there's like a hole in your heart. But if it closes you won't be able to breathe, and that's how you will die.
AUBREY: OK. A draconian interpretation of death by junk food, but Bryant Ebanns is making a connection.
Ms. PIJAI: OK. Can everybody smell the cinnamon?
Unidentified Group: Wow.
Unidentified Child #13: Don't breathe on the food. Don't breathe on the food.
AUBREY: While the apples bake, Pijai talks fiber. She explains fiber's like a sponge in your stomach, helping you fell full longer.
Ms. PIJAI: The pan is very, very hot.
Unidentified Child #14: Mm. Tastes excellent. (unintelligible)
Unidentified Child #15: It's magnifico.
AUBREY: The cooking lessons seem to pay off during the White House visit. Chef Sam Kass asks some questions to see what they'd been up to.
Mr. KASS: Why is fiber good? Who knows?
Unidentified Child #16: Fiber is good because it helps cleans your insides out.
Mr. KASS: Yes, it does. Who else - what else have you guys learned?
AUBREY: A few kids say they've started making their own creations at home.
Mr. KASS: What's your recipe?
AUBREY: Tarik Mason tossed his out.
Mr. TARIK MASON: This is called the banana hot dog.
Mr. KASS: A banana hot dog. That sounds phenomenal. Yes. Do you have it written out?
Mr. MASON: It's a wheat bread with a banana inside with peanut butter and jelly.
Mr. KASS: What kind of jelly?
Mr. MASON: It don't matter.
Mr. KASS: It don't matter. I can use my creative chef juices to come up with what jelly I'm going to use in it? I think I can work that out. Who else had a question over here?
AUBREY: The kids had a bunch of questions. Randy Smith wanted to know what Sasha and Malia like to eat.
KASS: You in the press love those questions. There's no one dish that I would say is their absolute favorite.
Mr. SMITH: What do they ask you to cook a lot?
Mr. KASS: We'll do lots of fish. We'll do chicken. We'll do some vegetables. We have vegetables at every meal.
AUBREY: And wait. What about junky food? Kass keeps it real.
Mr. KASS: We'll have a burger. We'll have some fries, you know. The point is that if every day you're eating good and healthy food, that if then you wanted to have like a little piece of cake - yeah, a little piece - then that's OK. But if you're having that every single day, then it's going to start to be a problem, right?
AUBREY: They all agree. They nod their heads and smile, but they're also a bit distracted. They're in the White House, towering portraits of past presidents and their families hang on the walls.
Mr. SMITH: That's Hillary Clinton.
Unidentified Child #16: I know. I'm looking at every single room to see what they have.
AUBREY: Huge, glittering Christmas trees fill the rooms. The experience is exciting, almost other-worldly. And they also seem to be fascinated by the chef himself.
Unidentified Child #17: She called you bald.
Mr. KASS: Well, I am bald.
AUBREY: Kass is at ease with kid's irreverence, and being the son of a teacher, he seems to have picked up that knack for engaging them. It wasn't all that long ago that he was a kid in his parent's kitchen first playing around with cooking. He says his earliest talent seemed to be making a gigantic mess, and his creations were not all homeruns.
Mr. KASS: You should ask my mom. She would have a better answer to that than me, because it always was like pretty good in eyes. But she'd come to the kitchen, and it would just be a disaster.
Aubrey: These days, of course, everything's in its place, but when he visits schools to talk with kids, he plays up the fact that cooking is creative. His basic mantra is that good food is about nourishment. Kass says he noticed something on a recent visit to a school cafeteria on a day they were serving veggie pizza.
Mr. KASS: What happened was was that the kids picked off all the vegetables, and it reminded me that just getting the good food there isn't enough, that we had to make sure that we foster an education and an environment that really is encouraging this, you know, way of eating.
AUBREY: Kass says he impressed with what he sees in these hands-on classes. The chefs are meeting kids with where they are in terms of trying new things and engaging them.
Here's Charmion Wood again with the kids a few days after their White House visit.
Ms. WOOD: Well, does anyone know what we're going to be making today?
Unidentified Child #18: Yes, spinach dip.
WERTHEIMER: Allison Aubrey followed those children from the White House to their cooking class. So Allison, what is this I see before me?
AUBREY: Well, it turns out, Linda, I've brought you something to try. I know it's a little early for carrots, but do you mind tasting?
WERTHEIMER: Not at all.
AUBREY: This is the spinach dip that the kids made.
WERTHEIMER: I don't know. It just looks sort of like regular old cream spinachy stuff.
AUBREY: Yeah. The recipe is on npr.org. It's just four ingredients: chopped spinach, cilantro, Parmesan cheese and Greek yogurt.
WERTHEIMER: So do you think the kids were impressed? Are they going to take up spinach?
AUBREY: You know what? I think this shows that you can certainly lead kids to spinach, particularly when you make it taste good, right? But I think kids are just like us, just like adults, and we eat what's in front of us. This spinach recipe, it took preparation. It took planning. Things like chips and Skittles -to borrow from what we just heard the kids talking about - don't. And sometimes those are just easier to come by.
WERTHEIMER: Allison Aubrey, thank you very much.
AUBREY: Thanks, Linda. You want a few more carrots here?
(Soundbite of laughter)
WERTHEIMER: Allison, reporting for Your Health today.
You can see photos of the kids touring the White House garden and find out exactly how to make that White House-inspired spinach dip at npr.org.
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WERTHEIMER: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.