Q & A with Healthy Foods for Healthy Kids

Healthy Foods for Healthy Kids

It’s officially summer and that means the growing season is in full swing here in Delaware! What better way to mark that time of year than with Dr. Thianda Manzara, Founder, CEO and President of Healthy Foods for Healthy Kids, a non-profit based in our very own backyard of Hockessin, Delaware. Harvest Market brings this article to you as part of our year-long series focused on organizations we support as your community grocer.

Harvest Market: Please tell our readers about Healthy Foods for Healthy Kids and how you got started.

Healthy Foods for Healthy Kids: Our goal at Healthy Foods for Healthy Kids (HFHK) is to provide joyful gardening experiences for Delaware school children. We’ve designed our program to make vegetable gardening practical for schools, even large public schools. Our program runs during the school year, and engages every child in hands-on gardening experiences each growing season, spring and fall. Students eat the vegetables they grow in the school cafeterias, and in the process can discover that vegetables are delicious. Not only that, children also learn science in the garden, which supports the Delaware curriculum, making our program attractive to busy teachers.Healthy Foods for Healthy Kids Logo

We started the HFHK pilot program in 2005 with one school, and the HFHK nonprofit organization in 2008 with the goal of expanding to more schools. I had the idea to teach kids science through gardening when I was a biology professor in Chicago, but didn’t have the time or opportunity until a few years after we moved to Delaware in 1999. I saw a real need here! I wanted to show that gardening with students during the school year would work, and was truly lucky to partner with Principal Michael Gliniak of Springer Middle School for the pilot program. Our second school was Keene Elementary in the Christina School District where Principal Bea Speir challenged me to involve the entire school in the garden, even though we had a small space. So I designed a curriculum that would allow each child in the school to have hands on gardening experiences while learning science. The rest is history, as they say. Our program has been successful because we provide a basic framework, expert assistance, and make gardening practical for schools.

Kids PlantingHarvest Market: How many schools participate in your programming?

Healthy Foods for Healthy Kids: More than 30, and we continue to expand.

Harvest Market: How does one start a garden in their local school?

Healthy Foods for Healthy Kids: If you’re asking how to start a garden with HFHK’s program, then interested people should contact me directly. I will meet with them, go over what we provide, evaluate their potential garden space, and come up with a budget. If they are interested, then we work together to raise grant funds to cover the costs of our program. We will only work with schools where the principal is onboard, and is interested in involving the entire school in the garden. We provide the curriculum, teacher training and know-how to build a garden and start our program. We also provide continuing technical assistance, our teachers’ manual and supplies once our program has been implemented and the school becomes essentially independent. For more information and/or to contact us please visit our website.

If you are asking how to start a school garden in general, there are tons of free resources online, and some of my favorites can be found here on our website. I would caution even “do it yourself” schools to work with an expert such as Cooperative Extension or The Delaware Center for Horticulture in building the garden. The reason is that I have personally seen schools make critical mistakes in their garden design, materials or location that can cause headaches or harm for the life of the garden.

Harvest Market: Who or what influences your passion for gardening with children?

Healthy Foods for Healthy Kids: Growing up, food was central to our family life, and my mother and maternal grandmother were both wonderful cooks. I had a reverence for fresh food and the folks who grew and prepared it, and I knew that fresh vegetables made everything taste better. I grew up in city apartments and didn’t get to grow a garden until I was in graduate school. The incredible beauty and freshness of the vegetables I grew thrilled me, and I felt like everyone should get to have that thrill.

Harvest Market: What crop inspires the most excitement among the kids and why?

Healthy Foods for Healthy Kids: That’s a tough one, because there are several. We plant fast-growing, cool-weather crops so that we can go from “seed to table” during the school year, so things like spinach, lettuce, chard, radishes, kale, etc. The ones that have been the biggest hits with the kids are; 1) Hakurei turnips, because they are sweet and crisp when eaten raw, 2) snap peas, because they taste good and the thrill of picking and eating is immediate, and 3) baby carrots, because, well, kids love carrots. We encourage schools to wash the entire carrot to serve them in the cafeteria, so eating them is fun too.

Children with Hakurei Turnips

Harvest Market: What are the challenges you face in meeting your goals?

Healthy Foods for Healthy Kids: Our biggest challenge is financial. We’d like to “Veggie-cate the First State!” In other words, provide our program to all interested schools in Delaware. I am a full-time volunteer, and we have just two full-time staff, and just recently a part-time person. We save money by not having a building or other expensive infrastructure. As is the case with almost all nonprofits, though, we end up spending a lot of time and effort trying to raise the funds to accomplish our mission.

Harvest Market: What changes can be made to strengthen the current school curriculum when it comes to food, farming and nutrition education?

Healthy Foods for Healthy Kids: Honestly, I would like to see an entire elementary school curriculum that is centered around food and nutrition. In other words, kids would learn math, language arts, social studies and science all via gardening and food. I don’t think that’s going to happen on a large scale, though. So, for the current curriculum, I would love for every kid to have the opportunity to get to know a real, live farmer, and to develop a true understanding of all the sacrifice and intelligence it takes for farmers to grow our food.

Harvest Market: How can our community better support your work? Do you host events or fundraisers?

Healthy Foods for Healthy Kids: Yes, we do host fundraisers! We expect to have our next event in early 2020. Please visit our website or Facebook page for the latest updates or to donate directly. For businesses, we also have sponsorship opportunities, and are very appreciative of in kind donations of silent auction items to help support our events. We’re grateful to businesses like Harvest Market that have supported our efforts through the years.

Kids Harvesting GreensHarvest Market: If you could grant one wish to the state of Delaware, what would it be?

Healthy Foods for Healthy Kids: A vegetable garden in every school!

Harvest Market: Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know?

Healthy Foods for Healthy Kids: HFHK can’t do it alone. We have been incredibly lucky to work with Nutrition Services in most New Castle County School districts, especially with Andrea Solge in the Christina School District, and Paula Angelucci in the Colonial School District. They make it possible for the student-grown vegetables to be served in the school cafeterias, and the Nutrition Services people are an important driving force in the efforts to improve children’s health. HFHK also relies on the fabulous teachers at our schools, ESPECIALLY our Garden Coordinators, to continue our program. These folks put in LOTS of extra work for NO extra pay to keep the garden program going. They are our heroes!