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'Farm to School' fuels interest in food

When harvesting bulbs, roots and other edibles with students at local farms, Kathie Rulon sees their mental light bulbs coming on.

"They're so excited when they pull something out of the ground "¦ they just almost can't believe it," says Rulon of volunteering with Rogue Valley Farm to School.

More Farm to School volunteers are needed this year to cook with kids on farms and, under a new project, to ply samples of local, in-season fruits and vegetables in school cafeterias. Two training events this month will show anyone with time to give during the regular school day how to connect students with the region's fresh, healthful, sustainable foods.

"I love watching the kids eat the stuff and say, 'Wow, this is really good,' " says Rulon, 64, of Medford.

No cooking expertise is required to sign up for Farm to School's kitchen training Thursday and Saturday, April 10 and 12, at Ashland Food Co-op. Knife skills, food safety, recipe preparation, nutrition information and working with students will be covered in the three-hour session, which includes lunch.

The kitchen training is relevant to both Farm to School's 75 "harvest meals" during the academic year and its cafeteria "tasting tables" piloted this school year. A commonly used educational tool by farm-to-school organizations nationwide, the tasting tables were "so successful" that they will become a part of the Rogue Valley group's regular activities, says program director Melina Barker.

Focusing on a different fresh ingredient each month, the tasting-table project recently brought locally grown pumpkins, carrots, beets, potatoes and kale to cafeterias in the Ashland and Central Point school districts. Students can taste the dishes and vote on whether they "tried it," "liked it" or "loved it." Recipes and nutrition facts are available for kids to take home.

Three to four volunteers man each tasting table with a Farm to School staffer, says Barker. Volunteers who want to focus more on cooking, or less on interacting with kids, can help prepare the sample dishes one day per week in the school cafeterias, she says. Volunteers are expected to work for at least 25 hours with the program over the course of the academic year.

Cooking with kids gets more hands-on at the program's farms: Ashland's Eagle Mill Farm, Medford's Dunbar Farms, Central Point's Historic Hanley Farm and Williams' White Oak Farm & Education Center. Training for would-be farm and garden educators immediately follows the kitchen training, so volunteers can participate in either or both ventures. Carpooling will be coordinated between Ashland and Hanley Farm.

Visiting farms as an entire class in spring or fall, students survey the operation, harvest crops and take their haul to the on-site kitchen to prepare lunch with volunteers and program staff. Learning to handle kitchen tools is another important aspect of the students' experience.

"They're thrilled to be using the knives," says Rulon, admitting that initially she was "so worried" about first-graders wielding sharp implements but hasn't seen one mishap while volunteering. And the kids' pizzas and tossed salads come out beautiful regardless of ingredients available, she adds.

"It's impressive."

Reach freelance writer Sarah Lemon at thewholedish@gmail.com.

Peggy Paver serves kale chips to second-graders Isaac Solis , left, and James Dyson as part of the Rogue Valley Farm to school program Wednesday at Walker Elementary School. Mail Tribune / Julia Moore