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Perspective: Growing good eaters, and good people

Apr 1st, 2018 | Category: Features

by Marit Olson

On a recent Monday, I stood in awe of the most interested and engaged eighth graders I have ever seen. Working in small groups, student chefs crafted their own stir-frys, from recipe to dish. Starting with a base of brown rice, students then chose a variety of vegetables, and picked a combination of spices to include in their customized tasty sauce. After checking their recipes with an educator to avoid drastic cooking mistakes, these young chefs were set free to collect ingredients, supplies, and create their concoctions. My co-educator and I provided guidance, but the results – some of which tasted better than others – proved a culinary manifestation of their teamwork and ingenuity. As eighth graders, many of these students have participated in years of Common Threads classroom lessons, after school clubs, and spring break and summer camps. The chance to create their own dishes served as a peak of built skills and cooking confidence.

Pea vine shoots! A healthy snack, and food for garden soil with nitrogen-rich roots. PHOTO COURTESY OF COMMON THREADS

Pea vine shoots! A healthy snack, and food for garden soil with nitrogen-rich roots. PHOTO COURTESY OF COMMON THREADS

When I joined Common Threads as an AmeriCorps Food Educator, I never imagined my most rewarding day of teaching would involve turning middle schoolers lose in a classroom with skillets, knives, graters, and six different spices, but it worked. I applied to serve with Common Threads because I believe food education empowers individuals and communities, and I witness this empowerment everyday, from eighth grade science classes, to kindergarten and after school clubs.

I am fortunate to teach cooking and gardening to students in elementary and middle school, and love the variation in classroom experiences. The younger students look in awe at the (training) knives we bring in to classes to chop cabbage, onions, and potatoes, but soon mince garlic with confidence, using their “bearclaw” grips to keep fingers safe. Students who cook at home enthusiastically share the tricks they’ve learned from their families, and even some of the pickiest eaters try an “adventure bite” of the potato curry or lentil salad they helped prepare. Students of all ages beg  for the coveted chore of washing dishes.

Student exclamations of “this is my favorite food ever!” and “it’s even better than cake!” are great rewards for the countless hours of hard work the entire Common Threads team puts into each lesson. The 13 full time AmeriCorps volunteers, a full time director, several part time staff, and countless interns and community volunteers, work together to provide grade level appropriate cooking and gardening experiences, that align with NGSS standards, to over 6,000 students across Whatcom County. To create these fantastic lessons, Common Threads members gather and write curriculum, craft, test, and translate recipes, source supplies and food, request donations, develop crop plans for spring gardening, start seedlings, photograph great food experiences, prepare gardening kits, and share the joys of growing good eaters.

As an educator, I witness children light up and engage with their world as they grow, cook, and taste food in their classrooms and school gardens. An added bonus is hearing how this experience makes it home, as parents and staff share stories of students who enthusiastically petition their parents to buy kale to make a salad, or cook garden stir fry for dinner using Common Threads recipes. The most fulfilling aspect of this position is engaging students in conversation about food. This year I’ve lead discussions with students about the cultural significance of what we eat, respecting our food and the people who bring it from field to plate, decreasing our food waste, and engaging in positive food experiences. While at Common Threads we focus on “growing good eaters,” I believe in my position as a Food Educator I get to do much more, I get to help grow good people.

To learn more about Common Threads school, after-school, and summer programs visit, or contact us at 360-927-1590,

Marit Olson is an AmeriCorps Food Educator with Common Threads Farm.

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