By Donna Cornelius
Journal features writer
When you’re thinking about possible pizza toppings, the combination of blackberries and basil doesn’t immediately leap to mind.
And at least one person who tasted the unusual dish had a few reservations—at first.
“I wasn’t sure how that would work out, but it was absolutely delicious,” said Briana Morton, Homewood Middle School’s family and consumer science teacher.
The blackberry-and-basil creation was the result of just one of the activities HMS offered this summer through its new Seed to Plate science and nutrition program. The school selected 15 students to take part in the June 23-26 event that taught the participants where their food comes from and why what they eat matters.
The students, who included rising sixth, seventh and eighth-graders, learned gardening basics and harvested fruits and vegetables from the Homewood City Schools’ Community Garden.
They also learned how to create healthy snacks and meals from the harvest, which meant that the dishes were mostly meatless.
“I was nervous about that,” Morton said. “But they learned they could survive without meat. And when we made quiches, several students told me they usually don’t eat eggs.”
But even with eggs and without meat, the quiches were a hit, she said, especially a Greek version with feta cheese and spinach.
The students put together their own personal pizzas on Monday. On Tuesday, they dined at a roasted potato bar, with the spuds and some of the toppings harvested from the community garden.
Morton said she was surprised at how much the students enjoyed a not-so-savory element of the program: composting. They made worm boxes—bins that house the creepy crawlers, which eat food scraps that become compost as they pass through the worms’ bodies—for HMS teachers.
“They were really excited about that,” Morton said.
The program participants also were intrigued by soil testing, she said, as they learned what types of soil provide nutrients for crops.
The highlight of the program was a luncheon held at the community garden on the last day of the event.
Joshua Gentry, owner of the Little Donkey restaurant, grilled fresh veggie tacos with red and green bell peppers, onions and mushrooms and added queso fresco, crema and toasted pumpkin seeds.
Gentry also served grilled pork tacos with pinto beans and fresh salsa.
Students raided the community garden for fresh blackberries and strawberries to serve with a salad.
Gentry showed the students how to grill corn and other vegetables the students had grown in the garden, including peppers, squash and eggplant.
The students invited their parents to the luncheon. Also invited were members of the Homewood City Schools Foundation and the Homewood Middle School PTO, which support the Seed to Plate program, and representatives from the Specialty Crop Block Grant and Legacy, Inc.
The luncheon celebrated the students’ hard work and also recognized Julie Gentry, the community garden director, and the leadership of Morton and Molly Knudsen, an HMS eighth-grade science teacher.
Morton and Knudsen are co-sponsors of the HMS Environmental Club, which will work in conjunction with the Seed to Plate program this school year.
The summer Seed to Plate session is just the start of a program that will continue throughout the school year in conjunction with the HMS Environmental Club. A culminating project is planned for Earth Day, April 22, 2015 at the school. The celebration will involve all students, school officials said.
The program will also expand to Homewood elementary schools, Morton said.
“We wanted to keep the first group of participants small, but this was so successful that we’re looking forward to opening it up to third, fourth and fifth-graders,” she said.
While it may seem early to get students interested in foods and nutrition, providing this type of education to children can help them build healthy eating habits as adults, said Margaret Purcell, a faculty member at the University of Alabama’s New College.
Purcell, who with husband John Fleenor owns Katie Farms in Coker, recently partnered with University Place Middle School to teach 160 students about small farming and local food. Hands-on opportunities like those provided by Homewood’s Seed to Plate program and the community garden are great ways to help students retain what they’re taught, she said.
“If students can grow their own food at home or in a school garden, then the lessons can be strengthened with repetition and application to real-life activities,” Purcell said. “The ability to grow your own food makes the taste so much better.”