Growing Chefs Brings Local Chefs into BC Classrooms

There’s something truly magical about growing your own food. Growing food offers a new perspective and new appreciation for where our food comes from. Suddenly those beans, herbs, tomatoes, or pumpkins look a little more delicious, especially to kids, when they’ve planted the seeds themselves.

The idea of connecting to our food through gardening has inspired many great organizations, one of which is Vancouver-based Growing Chefs. We’ve been hearing so many wonderful things about this program over the past few month that we decided to interview Executive Director, Helen Stortini, to share the Growing Chefs story with you all. Enjoy!

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BT: How did Growing Chefs get started?  

HS: The program was started by a pastry chef named Merri Schwartz in 2005. At the time, she was working in fine dining and felt there was so much great knowledge about local sustainable food, and relationships with local farmers but that it was confined to the restaurant kitchens. She decided to find a way to share this information with her community, focusing on children in particular. Actually, she was a bit ahead of the times—the local food movement hadn’t yet taken flight in BC. In 2006, she started a non-profit and piloted the first classroom program with four chefs at a local elementary school. The next year they trained a number of volunteers and the program has continued to grow from there!

BT: How would you describe the goal of the program today?

HS: The goal of Growing Chefs is to allow kids to better understand where their food is coming from, while also providing a forum for chefs to engage with community. We give kids a hands-on experience growing and cooking their own food, in a way that helps foster deeper connections with their food, and a more meaningful understanding of where the food comes from. It’s inspiring to many kids that they can grow food anywhere, even in the city, even on a windowsill.

BT: How many schools is this program operating in?

HS: This past spring we were in 30 schools.

BT: Do you find the kids in the program become interested in what the life of a chef is like?

HS: Absolutely! It’s very valuable to bring non-traditional educators and professionals into the classroom. It’s a unique learning experience. Actually, the program now includes not only chefs, but other food professionals as well. We’ve had volunteer restaurant owners, nutritionists, and hospitality folks wanting to get involved.

BT: Please describe what the program looks like in action!

Strathcona plantingHS: Over the course of three and a half months, the chefs visit the classroom every two weeks, helping students plant and tend to indoor vegetable gardens. The chefs engage the students in games, lessons, and activities focusing on plant growth, local and urban agriculture, sustainability, and nutrition. The students harvest their vegetables, and the chefs teach them to cook delicious, healthy meals with what they have grown.

BT: How can schools apply to have the program visit their school?

HS: We invite all teachers to apply on behalf of their classroom, and as well, we’re always looking for volunteers. We want to visit all the schools that apply, but we are dependent on the number of volunteers we have. I also want to let you know that on Sunday, October 23, Growing Chefs will hold an annual fundraising event called From Farms to Forks, giving anyone the opportunity to enjoy some culinary masterpieces prepared by an amazing group of local chefs, using ingredients from local farmers.

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Thanks Helen! It's been a pleasure learning about your organization. Helen leaves us with one of the popular salads they've made in the Growing Chef's program. 

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