I spent a vegetable-filled Saturday evening in Milan, for the annual benefit for Veggie U at the Culinary Vegetable Institute.
I’ve written about Veggie U in this column before — it’s a science program for fourth-graders that teaches them not only about plant life and growing, but also about healthful eating and the importance of vegetables in their diets.
The program has been in the Akron Public Schools for the past two years, where it has been a great success, but its future is still uncertain.
The program was developed at the Culinary Vegetable Institute, run by the Jones family, which operates the Chef’s Garden Farm in nearby Huron. The farm sells its amazing vegetables to restaurants throughout the world. It’s hard not to get high on veggies when you visit this place or taste its produce. The goal of the Veggie U curriculum is to pass on that high to help combat childhood obesity and to teach children to be good stewards of the earth.
Katrina Halasa, the health and science learning specialist for Akron schools, said she is still reviewing her budget to determine if the district will be able to continue the program for the 2011-12 school year.
“I don’t know what our budgets will look like and I don’t know what will be sustained or not at this point,” she said.
Halasa hopes to have the program, but just can’t be sure the money will be available.
The schools received a grant to put the program in Akron schools for the 2009-10 school year, and additional grant funding for the school year that just finished.
Each fourth-grade classroom receives a kit that includes dirt, seeds and other items to help classes establish gardens. Those kits cost $225 per class. With 75 fourth-grade rooms, Halasa will have to find about $17,000 to keep the program alive.
Plenty of schools are in the same situation, which is why the Jones family sponsors its annual Food & Wine Celebration, to help raise money to support Veggie U in classrooms throughout the country. “Changing children’s eating habits one classroom at a time,” is Veggie U’s slogan.
For the thousands who packed into tents on Saturday to sip and savor, persuading them to eat their vegetables was no problem. Dozens of chefs who volunteered to cook for the celebration turned the Chef’s Garden vegetables into an amazing array of dishes.
If I had to award a gold star, it would have to go to Cleveland chef Jonathan Guest, of the Washington Place Bistro, which is in Cleveland’s Little Italy neighborhood in the former Baricelli Inn.
Guest served up a fried green heirloom tomato, topped with pulled pork, and served with creamed corn and red cabbage chow chow on the side. This plate was flavor-packed, from the mild creaminess of the corn, to the tangy red cabbage, to the smokiness of the pork and the wonderful cornmeal crunch on the tomato coating.
Guest wasn’t without stiff competition.
Chef Anna Kim of the Cleveland Marriott served her own version of grilled cheese and tomato soup, with chunks of bread stuffed with melted white cheddar and grilled vegetables dropped into her roasted garlic and tomato soup.
Chef Jonathon Sawyer of the Greenhouse Tavern in Cleveland served rabbit ravioli floating in a broth of vegetables and herbs so fresh and light that each mouthful seemed to embody the word spring.
Bill Fuller, corporate chef for Pittsburgh’s Big Burrito Restaurant Group, served up flavorful, moist sliced chicken breast (which he got from Canton’s Park Farms) on top of sage cavatelli with chanterelles and fresh tomato coulis, topped with shaved black truffles for good measure.
And because corporate chefs often get little attention compared with their restaurant counterparts, American Greetings chef Tim Maxin gets a special shout-out for his pork taquitos, served with smoked avocado, charred tomato, chiles, sweet corn puree and pea tendrils, which offered several layers of flavor all wrapped up in a small package.
Lisa Abraham can be reached at 330-996-3737 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.