Today I’m pleased to share my interview with Melissa Graham, “head spear” at Purple Asparagus, a wonderful, Chicago-based organization dedicated to teaching people about healthful eating. Among the group’s core principles are propositions like, “Eating close to the ground is good” and “Bringing children and families back to the table strengthens the bonds of family, no matter how extended.” You can read more about Purple Asparagus’s mission and many accomplishments here. And now, my interview with Melissa:
We educate children, families and the community about eating that’s good for the body and the planet. Through our Delicious Nutritious Adventures, we want to get kids excited about fresh fruits and vegetables and to make healthy food fun.
TLT: I know you were an attorney, like me, before you became “head spear” at the organization. What led to the switch in career paths and starting Purple Asparagus?
I had always wanted to do something in the culinary field. In fact, I only took a big law job to ultimately fund a career change. When I left, about a year after I had my son, I started a catering company. Purple Asparagus was intended only to be an outlet for my volunteerism. It has since taken over my life and I’ve now devoted myself to it full time.
TLT: Can you describe Purple Asparagus’s education program? What are you doing in schools these days?
Our cornerstone educational program is Delicious Nutritious Adventures, which is a monthly program taught at various Chicago Public Schools. Each session focuses on a specific seasonal fruit or vegetable. For example, in September, we start out teaching “ You Say Tomato, I Say Yum!” The class begins with a tasting and children try a fairly large variety of tomatoes (cherry, grape, green, event fuzzy peach tomatoes). They explore them with all their senses. The second half is simple hands on cooking. Since we teach our programs in schools without kitchen facilities, we bring in all of our equipment (burners, blenders, sometimes even ovens). We also have a classroom’s worth supply of kid size cooking equipment: whisks, spatulas, hand cutters, etc. so the kids usually make the recipes from start to finish. We only have two rules. First, we ask each child to take a no thank you bite – they don’t have to finish what they’re eating, we just ask that they try it. We also call our classes No Yuck Zones and ask the kids if they don’t like something not to say it’s nasty, disgusting, etc. but instead that “It’s not tasty to my taste buds.” Through the program, we touch on geography, botany, food history, and of course nutrition. The size of our classes is usually 30 kids. In many schools, we run back to back programs reaching up to 90 kids in a single session. We also teach parent classes on an assortment of topics like picky eating or healthful family dining. The majority of the schools we work with are located in underserved communities.
TLT: What sort of activities do you sponsor within your larger community (outside of the school setting)?
We host book talks, most recently with Kelly Dorfman, author of What’s Eating Your Child? and movie screenings like What’s On Your Plate? We teach classes at venues outside of schools. We also participate in numerous health fairs, including Green Fest and Taste of Chicago. We also visit farmers’ markets and organize hands on cooking at them.
TLT: What do you think is the biggest problem facing children right now with respect to food, lifestyle or health? In what ways does Purple Asparagus help address that problem?
The unrelenting assault of convenience foods marketed to kids and parents. We try to combat this by demystifying healthy food. While we have many chefs working with us, we also draw upon talented home cooks to teach our classes. Sometimes, especially in parent classes, the chef instructor is intimidating like the only way that you can create a healthy meal your kids will enjoy is by having a culinary degree. We encourage our volunteers to relate to our stakeholders as fellow parents who happen to have a little more expertise in the kitchen.
TLT: You mention that “adding enjoyment to a child’s diet is essential to the battle against obesity.” How does Purple Asparagus promote the enjoyment of food?
We want to make it all about fun and deliciousness, which is the main reason we recently renamed our education program, Delicious Nutritious Adventures. There is room for French fries and cupcakes in our lives as long we don’t eat them every day and the ones that we do eat are made well with quality ingredients.
TLT: Does Purple Asparagus have plans to expand outside the Chicago area?
I never say never and if the right opportunity arose, we would consider it. Our programs are adaptable and replicable. We’ve demonstrated that by using the same curriculum in a variety of settings and age ranges with just a few modifications. Our direct focus is to find funding to expand our programs in Chicago to get schools off our wait list.
TLT: Is there anything else you’d like Lunch Tray readers to know about Purple Asparagus?
Just that we come at healthy eating with the common sense notion that eat close to ground incorporating lots of fresh fruits and vegetables into your diet and get the processed foods out, you’ll be well on your way to a healthy lifestyle. Nutritional facts are important, but they aren’t the be all end all. Having fun making good food is much more important.
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Many thanks to Melissa Graham for stopping by The Lunch Tray. More on Purple Asparagus may be found here.
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