Connecting Classroom to Cafeteria in CT

When a student going through the lunch line asked why there was a potato in the fruit basket, Kate Murphy, SNS, Food Service Director for Naugatuck Public Schools in Connecticut, had an “ah ha moment.” Realizing that the child didn’t recognize a pear, Murphy determined more had to be done to support nutrition education.

While researching ideas for CT Grown for CT Kids Week, Murphy identified resources available from local farmers that could be used to create lesson plans. She knew it had to be something kids would be interested in – that’s when she got her big idea: pickles!

Murphy went to the superintendent and principal to share the idea of teaching a pickle making class. She was charged with reflecting the curriculum the district already had in place, and had to be sure not to add work for teachers. So she found a simple recipe and held her first class.

Pickle making lessons

“My first question to students was ‘Where do pickles come from’ most responded by saying the grocery store,” said Kate Murphy. She showed the students the steps to turn cucumbers into pickles and was able to incorporate math and science curriculum into the pickle making classes.

“The recipe called for 10 pounds of pickling cucumbers and I told them there were 2 cucumbers in a pound, so I asked them how many we needed for the recipe,” said Murphy. “I realized the younger kids could count by twos and the older kids could multiply the numbers to get the answer.”  Each pickle is usually cut into 20 slices, so each batch makes about 400 pickles.

Finished product

Together with district teachers, they structured the measuring component of the recipe into math lessons for each grade level. She also talked to the students about different forms of measurement including quarts, gallons and cups. They discussed how many teaspoons were in a tablespoon, and to meet science class curriculum, the process of cucumbers being “cooked” and turned into pickles was reviewed.  

Students had a chance to smell the pickling spices, a helper in each class measured ingredients. After a few days, the sliced cucumbers turned into pickles, and they were served at lunch.

“I  had a mom call her saying her son wanted to make pickles at home, because the lady in the white coat in the kitchen showed him,” said Murphy. So she sent mom the recipe. 

Murphy’s idea didn’t stop at pickles. She also decided to have a farmer’s market at the school and with support from the PTO, fruits and vegetables from local farms were purchased to sell inexpensively to students.  Proceeds from the in-school farmers market went to the school’s farm-to-school program. Each item for sale had a sign that said which Connecticut farm grew the items, including squash and pumpkins.

“I supplied recipes, so the families could make things like applesauce and apple chips and spaghetti squash with the items the students purchased,” said Murphy.

In-school farmers’ market

The farmers market engaged students from an elementary school and intermediate school.

“The older students from the intermediate schools acted as greeters, cashiers and staff. So it was a student run and student attended experience,” said Murphy. “The best part is any fruit or vegetables that were not purchased by students were used in the cafeteria to limit waste.”

There was one item that Murphy over ordered, which was corn! What was she going to do with the dozens of extra ears that were left over? Her staff said they didn’t have time to shuck the corn to serve it at lunch. That launched Kate Murphy’s next big idea as she walked by the school’s gym.  

The Physical Education teacher agreed to have corn shucking included in class activity. They came up with a safe and structured way to hold a shucking relay race!  Students had the hands-on experience of running and shucking their own corn for lunch!

“’Awe Shucks’ gave the students pride over their achievement and involvement in making part of their school lunch,” said Kate Murphy.  “It was a way to showcase to the students the labor and hard work it takes to prepare fresh food.”

Kate Murphy with a student

Murphy says the pickle making and in-school farmers market accomplished some incredible things. It made students feel successful when they were able to select their classroom made pickles at lunch. The farmers market increased increased awareness of the fresh and local fruits and vegetables that were available and raised awareness of Naugatuck’s school nutrition program among families.  

Over the past few years, Kate Murphy has been able to bring her pickle making classes to most of the schools in the district, visiting multiple classes each time to make a large batch of pickles for the entire school.

Still to come for students in Naugatuck Public Schools is an expansion of hydroponic garden towers. Through a grant, Murphy is hoping to install them in all of the district’s third grade classrooms.

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