For a guest speaker, getting a room full of antsy schoolchildren to pay attention to you may seem a daunting task. But Susan Taylor, who runs a Chicago-based non-profit organization called the Good Food Project, has the answer.
Taylor's Good Food Project aims to educate children that fresh fruit is not only a better and healthier option than junk food snacks, but that it also is delicious to eat. She holds the kids' attention by putting on a program that is anything but, if you'll pardon the expression, "eat your peas."
When she talks to students, Taylor wears a red apron with the project's logo so children will connect with her as a mom rather than as a lecturer. She provides samples of different fruits, which in season often are fresh from regional growers, and then it is all class participation. Here, Taylor interacts with children ranging in age from 5 to 8 participating in a summer program at the Broadway Armory on Chicago's Far North Side.
Taylor instructs the kids to use all their senses to learn about food, smelling, licking (to determine texture), chewing and holding the food on their tongue briefly in order to judge its flavor. They then are asked to describe the food in one word, prompted by a vocabulary list she distributes that includes choices such as "tart," "juicy," "sweet," "aromatic," and "plump." They get to play food critic -- Taylor cites the snooty character Anton Ego from the cartoon movie Ratatouille so they are clear on the concept -- and rate whether they love, like or don't like each individual sample.
Because the event I attended was in early July, the in-season fruits featured were red raspberries, black raspberries (which she emphasized are different from blackberries), sweet cherries, a variety of tart cherries known as Balaton, and blueberries. Near the end of the session, Taylor made berry smoothies for the children using a stick blender.
But Taylor, a longtime food writer and author, along the way developed a particular expertise in apple varieties, which she has made such a major focus of the Good Food Project that she is often described as "the apple lady."
She said the students she speaks to, who range up to high school age, especially enjoy a part of her program in which she uses a spiral slicer to make apple "Slinkies."
"The kids with the tats and the studs were walking around playing with the Slinky apples in the hallway," Taylor said of a revelatory moment when she started the program a few years ago. "I had no expectation that high school kids would get on board, none, and they did. The only way you figure it out is to do it."
Taylor also said she was concerned at the start that it might be hard to hold the kids' attention, but that she quickly learned that most enjoy and get with the program. "I thought as soon as I started talking about smell it, lick it, and take a bite and let it rest on your tongue for three seconds, now chew it and we had all the words, crunchy, crispy, aromatic, juicy, I was expecting them to laugh me out of the classroom with sexual innuendo. There were a few titters, but the rest of the kids were so engrossed they hushed them up," Taylor said.
Taylor related that she was active in the liberal movement in the late 1960s and 1970s, and that she is combining her activist history with the knowledge she cultivated as a food writer in creating the Good Food Project. Yet while she obtains fruit from nearby growers as much as possible, she is not doctrinaire about local or organic foods, noting that these can be expensive and many of the students with whom she works are from families that have little money for luxuries.
"Most of the kids I deal with, their families can barely afford food, let alone organic food," said Taylor. "I truly believe that once people understand what food is about, they make the best choices based on what they can afford, and that’s all we’re trying to do.”
The program also has had some unexpected side benefits, thanks to the initiative of some of the teachers with whom she works. For example, when the Good Food Project holds one-day "markets" to sell fresh or dried fruit at Sullivan -- a high school with a mainly low-income and minority student body in the Rogers Park neighborhood -- the sales are conducted by autistic students.
"Who knew that the students with autism were going to be able to take leadership on something as important as providing healthy, delicious, nutritious food to their fellow students," Taylor said. "It was only because there were a bunch of incredible teachers and staff in that program that saw the potential for their students to have a great learning experience."