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The third-grade students at Pueblo Vista Magnet School had a decision to make on Wednesday. Which was better – raw or cooked zucchini bites?

What appeared to be a simple contest actually had a deeper purpose. The students were being seduced to become more accepting of vegetables.

One by one, each student selected a small piece of the veggie from bowls to taste test.

“It’s kinda spicy and kinda minty,” said Gabe Vargas.

“The cooked ones didn’t really have a taste,” said Knox Van Emst.

After tasting, the students each took a turn making “zoodles” or spiral “noodles” made from zucchini.

“I’ve had zoodles before,” said Knox Van Emst. “I love them.”

“I’ll tell my grandma” about zoodles, said one student. “She’s always into vegetables.”

“Zucchini power!” shouted another student, who had stamped a zucchini-shaped stamp onto his arms.

The veggie sampling was part of a new collaborative pilot program called the Z Project.

“The aim is to entice more students to eat school lunch every day because it is tasty and nutritious,” said Carrie Strohl. She’s a Napa Valley Unified School District teacher primarily based at Pueblo Vista. In 2018, she also founded the School Garden Doctor nonprofit.

The Z Project involves local school and community gardens in growing, harvesting and selling zucchini/summer squash to Napa’s Operative for School food Health (NOSH), the self-operating food service program in NVUSD.

The zucchini project is also a partnership with The School Garden Doctor, the Napa Valley School Garden Network and Napa Valley CanDo. Organizers hope to grow the Z project and turn it into a larger garden-to-cafeteria effort in Napa.

After growing zucchini at the school sites, at the CanDo Food Bank Garden and other community garden spaces, the zucchini will be will be prepared at the new NVUSD central kitchen for lunch on Sept. 12.

The School Garden Doctor used funds from a Whole Kids Foundation grant to supply the seeds and fertilizer. Each site supplied its own space, soil, water and labor. NOSH will buy the produce from the gardens for fair-market price on a per-pound basis.

The goal was to harvest a total of 800 pounds of zucchini. That’s enough to feed a two-ounce portion of zucchini on Thursday to the estimated 5,000 NVUSD elementary students who typically eat a school lunch, officials said.

With the Z Project, eight local schools grew zucchini in school gardens and are now harvesting their bounty.

“This is cool,” said Pueblo Vista third-grade teacher Genelle Cadloni.

“It’s really exciting because it’s giving them an opportunity to get familiar with nutritious food but by approaching with curiosity and wonder rather than being told you have to eat this because it’s healthy. They get to choose. It’s their decision.”

“It’s important that kids are involved in learning about food and how it’s grown,” said Food Service Director Brandy Dreibelbis. “They need to know where their food comes from.” And by having such taste tests, it gets students used to trying new things that the cafeteria serves.

“This is the best,” said Strohl.

“Tastings are an integral part of exposing students to fresh fruits and vegetables, especially when prepared in ways with which they may not be familiar to kids,” said Strohl. “Hopefully, when kids see the same items in the cafeteria, it increases the appeal of school lunch.”

Plus, “It shows how fun it is to be in the garden.”

Studies show that being in nature for even 20 minutes a day can relieve stress, said Strohl. Students need that release, she said, and not just from recess.

Working in a garden also promotes healthy eating habits, a better connection with nutrition and environmental literacy, she noted. “Kids need to experience nature firsthand” to get that connection.

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