PARMA, Ohio – In a school garden in Parma, there is a group of elementary school students who actually like vegetables.
“I didn’t know I liked sprouts until we did sprouts class,” said Grady Werman, a fourth grader at Pleasant Valley Elementary School. “I always thought they looked gross, but they’re really delicious.”
That’s because over the past few years, they’ve not only learned how to grow them, but also how to prepare them.
Ben Bebenroth is a farmer, chef and owner of Spice Hospitality Group. The group includes a farm, a catering company, a restaurant and a non-profit organization. He said all are on a mission to change the way humans interact with the earth.
“I do this through food and through environmental protection,” said Bebenroth. “Growing up next to a farm, I just know how important it is to be connected to the land and its food source.”
He calls his nonprofit spice field kitchen, one of his most important undertakings. In the age of fast food, childhood obesity and perpetual technology, he uses his nonprofit organization to teach people the importance of understanding where their food comes from.
“Really, the nutritional aspect of it, when food doesn’t travel all those thousands of food miles and you can consume it closer to its source, you get a lot more of that life force,” Bebenroth said. “It’s all connected. Everything we’re seeing right now in the healthcare system where we’re having some issues. It all starts at the dining table and it all starts in the garden.”
The field-based programs provide practical opportunities to learn the connection between soil health, nutrient density and personal health/well-being. Working with children and adults, they offer workshops in person at local schools, on site at Bebenroth’s 13-acre farm in Cuyahoga Valley National Park, and even online through distance learning programs.
The school garden, also known as the “country laboratory,” at Pleasant Valley Elementary School is the first garden Spice Field Kitchen helped with. In this garden they grow a variety of tomatoes, potatoes, sunflowers, golden raspberries, kale, peppers, strawberries, asparagus, popcorn, cucumbers and more.
“What I really want to instill in them is that sense of DIY, the fact that they can absolutely make it themselves,” said Steven Baker, chief operating officer at Spice Field Kitchen. “And it doesn’t require a lot of effort or even planning, it just requires the ability to manage and be okay with failure.” Sometimes something dies in you, and you know what? You will just grow it next time and it will be great. And you will learn something every time.”
The team said that not only does it taste better, but there are many benefits to eating local, seasonal produce. They aim to give people the skills and knowledge to make healthier food choices. Baker said most of the food from the school garden in Parma is used in the school cafeteria.
“I’m really playing a long game with these students here,” Baker said. “These kids are in their senior year at this elementary school. They have had a salad bar and garden for four years in a row. When they go to middle school, you know what? They will expect a salad bar in the garden because they know it.”
The team not only helps people grow fruit and vegetables; You teach them how to prepare the products and use them as ingredients for a meal. Bebenroth said he loves the saying “food is medicine,” but said it really isn’t. choice is.
“The food just sits on the counter waiting for you,” he said. “You must make a conscious effort and a conscious choice to prepare this food in a way that makes sense for your body, your family, and the time of the year, a commitment to the land and gardening, a commitment to education and understanding, that no one can make better nutritional choices without the skill, equipment, education, understanding and then access to healthy food.”
Bebenroth said he wants people to learn what the earth gives us so we can give back to the earth.
“That’s why I think it’s so important that we start at the dining table and in the classroom, because that’s where the conversation really starts,” he said. “And we can begin to understand the full impact of my commitment to this region, to this country, to this ingredient, it’s actually a commitment to my own body and mind and soul.”
He said he thinks a connection to natural systems is essential for an abundant, healthy life. He grew up connected to the earth and played outside every day. With the increasing consumption of technology in today’s society, it’s more important than ever that we slow down and get back to our roots.
At Bebenroth’s house, he said his family practices mindfulness. He said he doesn’t have phones at the dining table as he wants his kids to not only slow down their pace of life but also their eating styles. He said when you pay attention to what you eat, you experience it, which leads to appreciation.
“Just being able to live by it and teach kids how to sit and eat and appreciate and talk about what we’re experiencing, you know, that can lead to sharing gratitude at the dinner table,” said Bebenroth. “What was the best thing about your day? What are you thankful for right now? Those conversations don’t happen when you’re scooping in a burrito and holding TikTok in the other hand.”
By learning the true meaning of farm-to-table, many people saw food in a new way.
“I’d rather eat healthier than fast food,” says Emily Werman, a fourth grader at Pleasant Valley Elementary School.
It’s the beginning of a healthier Ohio and a healthier world, one lesson and one garden at a time.
“Not many first through third graders go after kale and Brussels sprouts,” Bebenroth said. “But in this school they definitely are.”
Spice Field Kitchen is hosting a fundraiser on October 8th in Spice Acres in Northeast Ohio. For more information about the fundraiser or nonprofit organization, click here.