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Middle schoolers learn the joy of cooking, and much more

The program is planting some seeds: perhaps this is another generation that will look askance at prepackaged mystery meats or the sugary cereal aisle.  

Great Barrington — There wasn’t a Cheez Doodle in sight.

Hard to imagine in a room full of middle-schoolers, but these students had discovered the joy of cooking from scratch and snacking on good, local food. They were busy in preparation for national Food Day; they had apples to grind into applesauce, whole grain crackers to make and bake —for 450 students and teachers at Monument Valley Regional Middle School.

We’re talking 700 crackers. And if there are 450 people, and each person gets two ounces of applesauce, well…do your middle school math.

Math is one of many reasons why these fifth and sixth graders are making so much food from scratch. They are part of Project Connection, a statewide program to give learning and enrichment opportunities to students who might not otherwise have them, and to give them something fun, useful, service-oriented and educational to do after school and during summers. Project Connection is funded by a 21st Century federal grant, which in part is meant to help students meet core academic standards, often in rural or low-income areas. The Project is also offered at Muddy Brook Elementary.

The cracker crew prepares the dough for more than 700 crackers.
The cracker crew prepares the dough for more than 700 crackers.

The Project partners with a sizeable number of local organizations like the Berkshire Botanical Garden, Berkshire Co-Op Market and Greenagers.

Greenagers’ Will Conklin stood serene in the midst of furious, spirited food prep. The Project, he said, is “serving a need in the community, but also connecting that to learning.” He said the program also “gives kids exposure to what the community has to offer,” and this can stay with them “up through high school and beyond.”

The program’s seventh and eighth graders had, the day before, made hummus to go with the crackers.

Conklin said the students have been out to local farms during summer, to lay out rows of veggie beds. “They had to use math,” he said.

That’s one way to sneak math into the education diet.

Students also helped local Second Hand Farm owners Luke Pryjma and Alexx Phillips with their marketing, said Conklin, and the farmers gave each student a carnival squash with a recipe attached. Students have been to a wildlife preserve, Alford Springs, Pfeiffer Arboretum, among other trips. They’ve worked on the Great Barrington Housatonic Riverwalk, and studied erosion and water quality.

Monument Valley Principal Ben Doren said this project is “a kickoff to get a lot deeper into issues of sustainability and local food practices,” some of Food Day’s core mission.

Program Director Tom Kelly said the Project is also a way to address a student’s academic needs in places where they lag. “We can break down MCAS scores by the area where they struggle,” he said, “and they can work on it experientially instead of sitting in a room working on sheets.”

Kelly said the students had to take recipes and modify them “to what tasted best,” then voted on which one they liked most. Everyone had to do some math, though measuring for recipes is a lot less painful than worksheets — at least in the end there’s something to eat.

Kelly said the program, offered by 70 or 80 schools in the state, also helps students who need a boost with vocabulary or social skills.

If noise levels and camaraderie are an indication of healthy socializing, then Project Connection is really on to something.

One serious young apple corer said the group has already made pickles, mozzarella, roasted vegetables and biscuits, though not for the entire school. “They taste better, fresher,” she said of the local Windy Hill Farm apples she was handling —and snacking on. Another applesauce maker agreed. They had learned to judge the health quotient of food by taste, making the connection between good food and its source. The program is planting some seeds: perhaps this is another generation that will look askance at prepackaged mystery meats, the sugary cereal aisle, or strawberries flown from California in the dead of winter.

Monument Mountain High junior Emma Adler popped into the kitchen area for a quick visit. Adler is active in Monument’s Sustainable Food Program. She said the program had created a snack bar and farm stand at the high school “with locally sourced food from Guido’s, the Co-Op, Bola Granola, and Bartlett’s Orchard.”

In a statement that would make any parent of junk-obsessed teenagers swoon, Adler said, “It’s an alternative for students who want a healthy snack.”

The cracker crew cuts dough into bite-size crackers. Photo: Heather Bellow
t the cracker table, dough gets cut into bite-size crackers. Photo: Heather Bellow

Over at the cracker table, where Greenagers’ Matt Boudreau oversaw the bakers, the mood was equally exuberant, as gloved hands rolled out cracker dough and cut little squares. In our Pepperidge Farm world, do they like the taste of their homemade oregano and Parmesan crackers? Unanimous nodding.

“A more organic taste to it,” said one. Indeed, these ingredients had come from the Berkshire Co-Op Market. The Co-Op also provided Serv Safe oversight, and storage for the endeavor.

“Not so salty,” said another cracker maker. “Doesn’t taste like chemicals.”

Berkshire Botanical Gardens Youth Education Coordinator Chris Wellens appeared to relish the chaos. He calmly oversaw a massive vat of applesauce. “I like seeing how the kids can be connected to the food they’re eating,” he said. Noting the math involved in dividing the food up for the following morning’s deliveries to every homeroom, he said, “It’s a learning opportunity for all of us.”

Berkshire Grown’s Suzie Fowle has worked with the students and hopes to help them become vendors at the upcoming Holiday Farmers Markets. All they need is a little assistance deciding what their product will be, she said. Berkshire Grown Executive Director Barbara Zheutlin stopped in and exclaimed her excitement at the very notion. Zheutlin crunched an apple slice before she put on her gloves and began rolling cracker dough with Principal Doren. As the day drew to a close, it was all hands on deck.

The young bandana-headed leader of the cracker table had an announcement to make. “According to my math we are at 742 crackers,” he said. “That’s enough for almost everyone to have three.”

His assistant, one eyebrow raised, wondered how many people would be absent on Food Day.


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