On a sunny Monday afternoon, a passel of second-graders ventured outside Gulfside Elementary School and sat on the long curb in front of chef Vince Blancato, who was dressed in his traditional chef's whites.
"Now I want you to forget where you are. I want you close your eyes for a minute because for a little while today you're not going to be second-graders," Blancato told the students, who readily scrunched up their faces, shutting their eyes tightly to block out the afternoon sun. "You're going to be farmers now. So I want you to think about a farm with cows and pigs on it. Remember the zucchini seeds you planted? Remember the tiny, little black carrot seeds you planted? And the potatoes? Well, they're all ready to be harvested. Now who wants to get dirty today?"
It was a gleeful turn for the second-graders, who were eager to visit the two raised garden beds that held a bounty of vegetables ripe for the picking.
Under the guidance of volunteer Master Gardeners Carla and Bob O'Brien, students took turns digging up carrots and picking tomatoes, green beans and broccoli. They searched for the lone red potato that was used for a classroom science experiment and had miraculously multiplied into a dozen or so since being planted in the garden a few months ago.
"Dig more farther!" said a delighted Jomar Encarnacion as classmates unearthed a few more red spuds to add to their collection bucket. "Wow — that's a lot of potatoes!"
It was a sight to behold for Blancato and fellow chef Ray Benton. A couple of years ago, the two retired chefs answered a call from the Tampa Bay Chapter of the American Culinary Federation to join the Chefs Move to Schools program. Since then, they have been volunteering along with others to educate Pasco students about making good food choices. Founded in May 2010, the program partners chefs with local schools and is an essential piece of first lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move! initiative to help solve the problem of childhood obesity within one generation. Other Pasco schools participating in the program include Fox Hollow, Hudson, Northwest and Veterans elementaries.
The school garden is an integral piece in introducing youngsters to just where their food comes from, said Benton, as he chopped up freshly washed vegetables for students to try. "You'd be surprised how many kids think their food just comes from the supermarket. We're doing this one child at a time, one school at a time."
Second-graders are the target audience for the chefs, who also conduct classroom activities and lessons on how to stack a colorful dinner plate with vegetables and the importance of forgoing unhealthy snacks and drinks.
"When we adopt a school, we're not just in the garden. We're in the classroom and the cafeteria," said Blancato, who was recently named Pasco County's Senior Volunteer of the Year. "We talk to them about the benefits of drinking water. We talk to them about the vitamins in the different vegetables. We talk to them about sugar and kitchen safety. But getting them out into the garden, that's the fun part."
"Guess what this is?" said Bryce Eddy, 8, smiling brightly as he waved a freshly picked green sprig under a reporter's nose. "Smell it: it's dill."
"It's like we're going trick or treating for vegetables," said Jonathon Piskopos, 8, as he filled a plastic bag with beans and carrots to take home to his family.
That kind of sentiment is shared by Master Gardener Bob O'Brien. Along with his wife, Carla, he oversaw the building of the raised beds that were filled with free mulch dropped off by the city of New Port Richey and potting soil purchased locally. No pesticides are used on the garden, so students also learn about the beneficial insects that keep pesky garden pests, such as aphids, at bay.
"One time we found a bunch of lady bugs out here, so we got to teach them about how good lady bugs are in the garden," he said. "They eat 10 times their weight every night.
"I never worked with kids before, but they love coming out here, even if it's just to pull weeds," O'Brien added, noting they will expand efforts for the upcoming planting season so that each student will be able grow their own plant in food-grade buckets donated by local businesses. "These kids come out here and say, 'I planted that,' and they're so excited about it. I thought it would be great if they had their own plant to take care of."
These kinds of hands-on lessons aren't lost on teachers such as Anita Brown, who enjoyed the garden's second harvest every bit as much as her students.
"We had our first harvest of lettuce in November and the whole second grade got to have salad for our Thanksgiving feast," she said. "It's so much fun to watch them taste and experience. Just look at their faces, how excited they are. And it's vegetables. Isn't it great?"