The national Farm to School movement focuses on three main things: school gardening, nutrition education and purchasing food locally. The best outcome when these things come together is healthier kids. Like many states in the middle of our nation, West Virginia has high rates of obesity, especially troubling when it affects children. In an effort to use food education to get kids on the right track, a middle school in Greenbrier County, WV, is using a grant to create opportunities for kids in both physical education and nutrition.

“A lot of times, what children learn in health class and gym doesn’t translate into daily life for them,” says Emily Landseidel, the farm-to-school coordinator whose AmeriCorps position is supported by the Benedum Foundation, the Office of Child Nutrition and the Greenbrier CHOICES grant. 

Landseidel’s efforts during the past year at Eastern Greenbrier Middle School have included turning unused greenhouses into a school garden, working with teachers on food/health education collaborations, conducting taste tests of fresh, local veggies and introducing sixth graders to the local food community.

“This isn’t a health-book approach,” she says. “I want to get kids thinking about what’s on their plate through a different lens. Eating things like sweet potatoes and tomatoes is part of a larger culture.”

Recently, a local cattle farmer volunteered to take time with the students to teach them about grass-fed beef, and more importantly, some cooking methods that would be easy for a tween to try at home.

Tootie Jones brought grass-fed sirloin from her farm, Swift Level Land and Cattle, which is just five miles down the road from the school. Buying local is another component of the education, Landseidel says: teaching kids why it’s good to support your local farmers: “West Virginia has an unemployment problem like the rest of the nation. If we can buy locally, we are supporting our neighbors.”

“Beef is central to the Greenbrier Valley. There are about four or five grass-fed cattle farms in the area. Tootie’s family has been running the farm for generations,” Landseidel says. “She taught us about how to cut meat, against the grain, and she cooked on a cast iron skillet.”

Jones walked the class through a simple stir-fry recipe, which not only uses beef, but also is a great improvisational recipe for whichever fresh veggies are on hand. The students broke into groups and each created their own spice blend, some with Mexican flavor profiles and others with Indian spices.

As the stir fry came off the skillet, the students tasted it and loved it, and came away with an idea of something they could make themselves.

Other cooking activities have included a Johnny Appleseed day with sliced apples and peanut butter, almond butter, yogurt and cinnamon to dip, along with Landseidel’s homemade applesauce, which she says the kids can’t get enough of.

Another time, they made a vegetarian sweet potato chili and experimenting with kale—making craveable kale chips, a trendy K-12 ‘stealth health’ item that happens to be really delicious.

Along with eating right, the class has been learning a new physical education activity, something that’s popular in West Virginia (here’s where the wild part comes in): slack lining.

Landseidel says she hopes the combination of education, food and fun activities will make a difference in the choices these sixth graders will make in the future. For more information, check out West Virginia Farm to School