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OSU’s Chefs in the City teach children healthy eating

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The Chefs in the City program brings fresh produce to kids living in the inner city. Credit: Courtesy of Bill Kline

The Chefs in the City program brings fresh produce to kids living in the inner city. Credit: Courtesy of Bill Kline

Students might recall pushing broccoli or brussel sprouts away from their plates as they were growing up.

These vegetables might be remembered by some as an affront to dinner. However, some children in the U.S. — and in the Columbus area — have never had a chance to taste them and might not even know what they are. An Ohio State-based gardening program is working to change that.

Chefs in the City was established last year as a partnership between the OSU Wexner Medical Center and OSU Extension Franklin County. The program is based out of the Highland Youth Garden of Hilltop, Ohio, where students help garden, as well as learn about healthy eating and take-home produce.  

The Chefs in the City program brings fresh produce to kids living in the inner city. Credit: Courtesy of Bill Kline

The Chefs in the City program brings fresh produce to kids living in the inner city. Credit: Courtesy of Bill Kline

Jim Warner, head chef and program director of Food and Nutrition at the Wexner Medical Center, said he works with children who have never had access to produce. Hilltop is a food desert, Warner said, meaning there are no grocery stores, markets or access to fresh fruits and vegetables. Many children, he said, live on fast food.  

“I’ll have kids try a raspberry from the garden, and they look up at me smiling and saying ‘num’ because they’ve never had one before,” Warner said.  

Students from the Columbus Bilingual Academy, Highland Elementary and the J. Ashburn Jr. Youth Center come weekly as part of their classes to plant seeds and harvest produce. They also get to see meals being prepared, sample them and take home produce and recipes.  

Warner said he has made dishes such as kohlrabi fritters, baked sweet potatoes, raspberry smoothies and tomato soup. However, there is also an educational aspect that extends beyond the kitchen.

Warner and former nutrition educator Scott Lang, a 2015 OSU alumnus, teach the students about things such as cross pollination, soil conditions, vitamins and the importance of healthy eating.  

“This program is so important because it not only gives these kids and families easy access to fresh food in a food desert, but it also educates them on why they’re important,” Lang said.  

Peggy Murphy, master gardener and OSU Extension’s Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program assistant, said she wishes there were educational urban gardens all over the city.  

“How often do we say that our children should be eating healthier?” Murphy said. “Telling someone to do something isn’t as powerful as showing them.”   

Warner said that it is important to build trust with such close-knit communities. He said he knows many people who have well-meaning ideas, but who will also come once and not return. If real change is to be achieved, one has to be dedicated, he said.

Warner said that the Columbus Bilingual Academy liked the program so much that it fired its old food provider to hire one that would provide fresh fruits and vegetables.

Lang said he noticed students, who would visit during the week because of class, also come on Saturdays because they want to eat healthier.  

However, funding is tight, and the grant that previously funded the program was not awarded this year, Murphy said.

The previous OSU CARES grant was used to start the program in 2015. Murphy said the organization did not receive a grant this year because the university believed the program “wasn’t sustainable” because it did not generate revenue.

She said that she hopes to continue the program with the help of caring individuals.

“I just want to get Chef Jim out there again and see this program grow,” Murphy said.  

While 70 percent of the garden is planted by the children, Murphy said she believes it helps the entire neighborhood. In an area where most residents do not own a car, Murphy said the garden is necessary and much better than fast food.  

“It’s such a foreign language to people, gardening and eating fresh fruits and vegetables, but it shouldn’t be. Everyone deserves a chance to be young and healthy,” she said.

The Engaged Scholars logo accompanies stories that feature and examine research and teaching partnerships formed between the Ohio State University and the community (local, state, national and global) for the mutually beneficial exchange of knowledge and resources. These stories spring from a partnership with OSU’s Office of Outreach and Engagement. The Lantern retains sole editorial control over the selection, writing and editing of these stories.

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