The food kids consume has been the source of an ongoing national conversation as we debate how to improve the health of America’s youth. Throughout April, we’re turning the attention to what's happening in St. Louis and are spotlighting the people who are helping local children make better choices on what they eat.


St. Louis University graduate student, works with Dr. Mildred Mattfeldt-Beman, R.D., chair of the Department of Nutrition and Dietetics on a pilot program at City Garden Montessori School

Every Friday, St. Louis University graduate student Whitney Riley Klein cooks lunch with one classroom of students at City Garden Montessori School. The classrooms rotate, so all students cook and eat a family-style lunch several times during the year.

Hand in hand with cooking, Kline teaches nutrition and health. She stirs in a healthy dose of physical education disguised as fun and games in the schoolyard. The program, which is still in the pilot stage, keeps kids jazzed about eating good food, forming healthy habits and movin’ to the groove.

“This is my dream job,” Kline says. “I interned with Mary Waskow at Soulard School (more on Waskow below), and I knew I wanted to work in school nutrition. When the City Garden opportunity came up, Mary told them about me.”

Kline uses a farm model, tailoring the information to fit each age group. “Cows provide red meat and dairy. We’ll talk about how calcium in dairy products strengthen bones, for example,” Kline says. “Then, we learn how bones need weight-bearing exercise to stay strong. We do the same with chickens, fruits, vegetables and grains.

“We talk about where food comes from, how it gets to our table, and how things grow in seasons.” Kline encourages children to taste unfamiliar foods.

“We start with reading recipes and explaining ingredients when we cook,” she says. “The sixth-graders read about curries in FEAST and wanted to use the Maharaja curry to make lunch.” The blend used costly saffron, but the class still managed to stay within the shoestring budget of $1 per student per lunch.

“Younger students make simpler things, like breakfast for lunch.” Once a menu is set, she gathers the ingredients and sets up a to-do list of cooking tasks in half-hour segments. Kline supervises the food preparation with a calm gracefulness. She instructs, then allows the kids to practice and learn.

One group mixed and blended strawberry smoothies. Another cracked and seasoned 2 dozen eggs for the scrambled eggs. Four students chopped red and yellow peppers to fold into the eggs. Four measured and whole wheat mixed pancake batter, both wet and dry ingredients. The last group made the berry sauce.

Kline cooked the lunch and lessons continue as the students came to the table. “We practice mindful eating,” Kline says. “Before we take the first bite, we assess our hunger. Then we use our five senses to describe the food. What color is it? What shape? How does it smell?”

Kline emails parents copies of the recipes with colorful graphics. She sends photos of the children cooking as well.

Next year, when City Garden Montessori moves to its new location, the pilot program Kline now teaches will have room to grow. “My dream is they [the students] will cook at home. I ask, ‘Do you think your parents and your brothers and sisters will like this?’ I hope their learning will trickle up.”


Owner, Seven Gables Organic Farms

Mechelle Ortmann of Seven Gables Organic Farms believes great nutrition starts when people know their food. She’s helping children and communities get stronger and healthier by making better food choices, working from the ground up.

“I want to bring as much knowledge and food awareness to the Washington, Hermann, and Meramec Valley community as I can,” says Ortmann, who champions school gardens and better school lunches.

Her farming experience coupled with her passion for feeding her family healthy, natural foods gives serious street cred to her efforts. Her ability to coax plants, materials and money from local businesses and donors makes gardens blossom.

Ortmann partnered with Westminster Christian Academy to break ground for a community garden on school grounds in March. “Westminster is a perfect example of the administration, teachers, parents and community working together,” she says. “Hummert International of Earth City donated grow lights to start seedlings. Holly Cunningham of Hollyberry Catering and I supplied the plants. The administration promoted the garden as part of the campus wellness campaign.” Teachers and parents bought into the concept, too.

The sweet success at Westminster encourages Ortmann to persist. She relies on a strong network of like-minded folks, including friends from Slow Foods St. Louis. “Oh my gosh, when I found Slow Foods, and the Nourish: Food + Life curriculum, it was great,” she says.

The Nourish curriculum emphasizes seed-to-table concepts taught in engaging modules with hands-on activities for all grade levels. As part of the curriculum, students develop a survey to assess, and hopefully improve, the lunch options at schools.

For Ortmann, boosting nutrition in cafeteria lunches works hand-in-glove with school gardens. In April 2011, she invited St. Louis chef Josh Galliano to the St. Francis Borgia School garden in Washington, Mo., for a healthier-options Girl Scout cookout.

“Josh came with hot dogs he’d made from Rain Crow Ranch grass-fed beef. He made pasta, too, tossed with kale the students had grown at the garden and quiche with our farm eggs and greens.

Hillerman Nursery in Washington had donated additional plants for the garden, which the Girl Scouts set out that morning,” Ortmann says.

For Ortmann, the dogged work of speaking with area superintendents, coordinating donations and preaching the gospel of good food continues. She’s plenty busy farming. She works off-farm, too, but she believes teaching children to make good food choices is too important to ignore.

“I have two little girls; that’s why I do it,” she says. “My kids don’t know what a Pop-Tart is. CaroleAnne is 6, Margaret is just 5. We eat whole grains, snacks on celery and carrots with peanut butter. We make most foods from scratch.

“If no one promotes school gardening and connects [good] nutrition to better health for kids, all the knowledge we have won’t help them lead healthier lives.”


President, Hollyberry Catering

In 2011, when Holly Cunningham, president of Hollyberry Catering, joined in partnership with Westminster Christian Academy to provide healthy lunches at the school, she surveyed all 900 Westminster students and read each one.

“The most surprising result was the boldly negative reaction kids have to the word ‘healthy.’ ‘Give me back my hamburger! Where’s our pizza?’ They don’t want to eat healthy,” she says. She used the feedback to craft menus and programs aimed to please students and provide good nutrition through the Campus Cuisine by Hollyberry program.

Cunningham, a Westminster alumnus, believes learning to choose foods wisely is critical. Ten percent of children aged 2 to 5, 19.6-percent of six-to-eleven year olds and 18.1 percent of teens are obese, according to FatStats at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Food is very personal,” Cunningham says. “Most adults don’t eat in a cafeteria culture. I’m challenged, as a professional, to come up with ways to make healthy eating work in a cafeteria setting.”

As such, she started with words: “Make the food sound good from the start. Chicken enchiladas. Soup in a bread bowl.”

The foods sound yummy, and Cunningham packs in the nutrients as well. Her staff purees vegetables into the sauces and roasts meats. Whole grains replace refined flour products in sandwiches and wraps. Fresh fruits, salads, fruit smoothies and homemade snacks round out menus.

Cunningham’s creative approach to foods students favored brings healthy alternatives to popular foods. When the cafeteria offers chicken fried rice, pad Thai, lasagna, chicken tetrazzini and burritos, lunch sounds fun, not healthy.

Throughout April, menus riff on familiar favorites:

  • Mondays: Chinese take-out
  • You-Pick-Two Tuesdays
  • Pasta Party on Wednesdays
  • Thursday Fiestas
  • Pizza Friday

With lower fat ingredients, plenty of fresh vegetables and fruits, these lunches provide nutrient-dense foods in tasty preparations.

Wellness and food education doesn’t stop at the cafeteria doors at Westminster, however. The school broke ground for a garden in March to teach seed-to-table concepts. The produce will be used in the student Culinary Club. A spring chef’s series at the Westminster Café will feature Mike Damico, executive chef at L’Ecole Culinaire, on Thu., April 19, and Jim Fiala, owner of Liluma, The Side Door, The Crossing and Acero on Thu., May 10.

“This summer, we’ll teach a Cooking Around the World camp for young children,” Cunningham says.

The focus for Cunningham centers on providing good food. “Every school day, we create from-scratch food for 300 to 400 people in under three hours, plus we need to hit all the nutrition marks and government guidelines.

“My catering manager works on-site at Westminster with a crew of six, including students from L’Ecole Culinaire. We make everything we list on the menu in-house, unless it’s noted. Prep starts at 6 in the morning. We don’t bring in any pre-packaged or pre-cut produce. All sweets are made fresh with no preservatives. We’ll substitute applesauce and yogurt for higher-fat ingredients, too,” Cunningham says.

She manages it with grace, style, and an understanding that young people deserve to be heard, in all areas of their lives. “I’m big on surveys and feedback. We have special connections to food. It’s so universal. We can be successful, early, in teaching the connections between good nutrition and health when we listen.”


Culinary Arts Instructor, The Soulard School

Seven years ago, Mary Waskow wasn’t sure she wanted her kindergartener to eat cafeteria lunches at the fledgling Soulard School.

“My family ate balanced, healthy meals,” she says. “I didn’t want my daughter eating hot dogs and chicken fingers.”

In voicing her concerns to the staff, she “asked so many questions, the school asked me to volunteer one day a week cooking with the children,” she says.

Waskow wasn’t trained as a chef, but her background in elementary education with a gifted certification gave her the skills to design a multi-dimensional food education and nutrition program.

The open structure at Soulard School gave the programs legs. The following year, Waskow joined the staff as the culinary arts instructor. “The culture of the school is built on mutual respect. We call our students friends. The friends call me and all their teachers by first name,” Woskaw says.

She stresses a seed-to-table concept, taking children on field trips to farms and markets so they know where food comes from. “Each fall, we visit farmer Paul Krautmann at Bellews Creek Farm. They harvest a crop like black beans or dig sweet potatoes. Farmer Paul gave us so many sweet potatoes, the children found great ways to use them in our menus.

“They learn to read food labels. When they choose a snack, they know the nutritional value, the portion size and the calories. When they choose empty calories, they understand what that means,” she says.

Two days each week, Waskow cooks with the children. “Pre-kindergarten, kindergarten and first-grade classes come into the kitchen three times during the school year. They learn to wash hands, wash produce and get familiar with the kitchen.

“By second grade, friends from all grades rotate in four or five times each school year to plan menus, shop, cook and serve lunches. We teach knife safety and how to cook at the stove. Each week, we sit down and plan balanced meals and menus. We make a shopping list and a budget. On Thursdays, we make a field trip to Soulard Farmers' Market and the friends handle everything: the list, the negotiations with the farmer, the money.”

On cooking day, the friends’ crew arrives at the kitchen at 9:30am. By 11:30am, Waskow and her crew feed 90 people, two days a week. Meals are served family style to children from mixed grades, teachers and staff sitting together at assigned tables. To round out the week, McGurk’s Irish Pub & Garden and Benton Park Café cater lunch two days. On Friday, everyone brings brown-bag lunches to school.

Participation in the culinary arts program isn’t voluntary; it’s required. “When you eat family style, you learn different skills. Manners. How much of each food to put on your plate. Making sure there’s enough for everyone,” Waskow says. The slowed-down pace of eating a from-scratch meal can’t be learned except in the doing.

Waskow’s concerned about the epidemic of childhood obesity. “It’s obvious obesity is a huge problem perpetuated by our society. We want quick and easy, and that’s backfired on us. The way our food system works, processed foods can be really cheap and fresh produce more expensive. That seems backwards to me,” she says.

Waskow believes adults can help children make good choices. “Don’t underestimate children. Every kids menu is nearly the same: grilled cheese, chicken fingers, mac and cheese, hamburgers or hot dogs. Challenge them.

“Don’t make a second meal for your children. You work things through. New foods may need to be introduced two or three times.”

Her biggest satisfaction comes when students demonstrate what they’ve learned in class. “After students have cooked with me for a few years, they’ll have the confidence to make up their own recipe for a dish and the know-how to make it. That’s most rewarding.”

Hear firsthand from Waskow and learn more about The Soulard School's culinary arts program in this video.


Check back for more profiles on St. Louisans who are shaping the way children in our community eat.

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