Comox Valley chefs educating children about agriculture, food

Merri Schwartz was frustrated when she founded Growing Chefs, a Vancouver-based non-profit organization.

Chef Dawn McRae of Custom Gourmet is one of the North Vancouver Island Chefs' Association members educating youngsters about agriculture and food as part of the Growing Chefs program.

Chef Dawn McRae of Custom Gourmet is one of the North Vancouver Island Chefs' Association members educating youngsters about agriculture and food as part of the Growing Chefs program.

Merri Schwartz was frustrated when she founded Growing Chefs, a Vancouver-based non-profit organization aimed at educating kids about local and sustainable agriculture.

While the Comox-born pastry chef was well-acquainted with the theories and practices of sustainable agriculture, she found that the public was not. Growing Chefs’ executive director Helen Stortini explains that working in fine dining, Schwartz constantly encountered chefs who “had all this knowledge about local and sustainable food, and had great relationships with local farmers and producers…  But it wasn’t getting outside of the kitchen walls.”

If Schwartz wished to inform and empower a community of local eaters, she would have to do it herself.

Schwartz, eager to extend this valuable wealth of professional knowledge to the public domain, established Growing Chefs in 2005 as “an avenue for chefs to engage a greater community.”

The program aspires to create a forum for chefs, educators, growers, community groups, and families to collectively promote awareness of food sustainability.

With roughly 30 participating schools throughout the Lower Mainland, the program is rapidly expanding; and this spring, two local elementary schools are participating in a Comox Valley pilot program.

Growing Chefs encourages elementary school children (Grades 1 to 3) to take an interest in growing, cooking and eating healthy food through the implementation of a classroom gardening program.   Once paired with a classroom, chef volunteers make bi-weekly visits; over the course of three months, students are introduced to the keystone concepts of sustainable agriculture and will grow, harvest, and cook their own vegetables.

Stortini praises Alexander McNaughton — one of “an amazing group of volunteers from the Valley” — for helping to bring the pilot program to our community.

When McNaughton fondly recounted his experience at Growing Chefs to his mother Patricia Foster, she suggested the program apply for a Community Food Action Initiative Grant from the Vancouver Island Health Authority (VIHA) to fund a pilot in the Comox Valley.  The non-profit organization took her advice, and discovered in January that Growing Chefs had been approved for funding.

Once Growing Chefs had successfully secured grant funding, everything else fell into place, says Stortini. Having “all the pieces of the puzzle” – namely community interest in sustainable agriculture, enthusiastic volunteers, and available producers, the Comox Valley is “the perfect fit for a pilot program,” she explains.

Several enthusiastic chefs volunteered to be matched with elementary school classes, and a handful of devoted growers contributed to the project.

There is “so much enthusiasm about local food (in this community)” Stortini proclaims.

She says a big thank you to the local businesses supporting the program, which include As You Like it Products and Catering, Island Gourmet Trails, Custom Gourmet Catering, Amanda’s Catering Service, Vancouver Island Health Authority (VIHA), Locals Restaurant, Innisfree Farms and North Island Culinary Institute.  She was especially impressed by the “savvy group of kids” who participated in the pilot program, noting that several chefs have reported feeling like they’ve “learned just as much as the students have.”

The participating students belong to third-grade classes from Cumberland Elementary and Robb Road Elementary — schools selected for inclusion in the program upon a local school district employee’s suggestion.

Because three of the eight local chefs who volunteered were French-speaking, Growing Chefs was able to offer students both French and English instruction. The pilot program, which runs from March till June, has thus far been exceedingly successful. Provided Growing Chefs can again secure funding and an eager body of volunteers, the program will return to the Valley.

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