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Youth teaching youth: spreading a culture of wellness through peer education

NFSN Staff Tuesday, October 06, 2015
By Miguel Villarreal, Novato Unified School District
  Photo Credit: Camp Cauliflower
With more than 32 years of experience in school food service, I’ve seen thousands of kids benefit from healthy food experiences in the cafeteria. It’s one of the perks of my job as Novato Unified School District’s (Calif.) food and nutrition director – I have the opportunity to teach kids about healthy eating by encouraging them to try new foods. While we work hard to educate our students about nutrition and wellness, we know that sometimes the best way to learn isn’t from teachers at all – but rather, from one’s own peers.  
In 2014, 16 year-old Elena Dennis approached me with a proposal along these lines. Inspired by a passion for cooking and interest in healthy eating, Elena had a vision to lead a free cooking camp during the summer to teach elementary students about the basics of healthy meal preparation. I didn’t hesitate in telling her that I would be glad to support her efforts. After all, her goal of inspiring kids to enjoy nutritious eating was my goal. With her passion for education and our schools’ commitment to healthy, local food in cafeterias, our combined efforts could be a winning combination for creating a culture of health and wellness in our schools. 

With our district’s Food and Nutritional Services kitchen secured as the camp location and a name selected, Camp Cauliflower took root. Elena began planning recipes, placing food orders, and arranging field trips to local farms. To keep the cost of participation free, Elena secured food donations from local grocery stores and organized a fundraising event. She also recruited two of her high school friends – Michala and Dani Cohen – to assist her as volunteers.

Once the tentative schedule was in place, Elena worked with three Novato elementary schools principles to recruit participants. While only five students – all 8 year-old girls – signed up that first year, Camp Cauliflower was a big hit. The campers spent the week exercising their culinary skills in a professional kitchen, cooking delicious meals from scratch and learning about the importance of a healthy, balanced diet. Elena sourced local, organic products for the campers to make homemade ravioli, salads, pizza, tostadas, guacamole, salsa, agua fresca and many more delicious recipes. 
The campers harvested some of the ingredients to make these tasty meals when they visited the College of Marin's Indian Valley Campus organic farm and garden. When they weren’t cooking or harvesting vegetables, the campers learned about nutrition through activities like blind taste tests and by learning to read food package labels. Every day, the campers widened their knowledge of healthful eating and expanded their appetites for delicious, nutritious food.     

As I watched over the first year of Camp Cauliflower, my excitement and belief in a future generation of passionate, healthy eaters was strengthened. Elena and her fellow high school volunteers were an inspiration to watch as they interacted with younger students. This experience of peer education not only provided these high school students an opportunity to exercise their leadership skills, but a vehicle through which they were able to become active, motivated stakeholders in our work to create a healthier environment in our schools and community. They’ve shown us that adults aren’t the only ones shaping the food movement – students are also providing vision, ideas, and leading the way.  

This past summer, Camp Cauliflower was in full swing again – this time with 2 sessions and 30 participants – where Elena continued to educate and inspire even more of her younger schoolmates. If the campers’ excitement was any indication, we have many budding peer educators in our community who will be passing on their food knowledge to their classmates. Youth to youth, our students are inspiring each other, and cultivating a community of healthy habits and wellness throughout our schools.    

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