Tom Eblen

Tom Eblen: Plant to Plate program teaches girls about nutrition, cooking, better health

Early this spring, students in the new Plant to Plate program at the Family Care Center's alternative high school began by planting vegetables in donated bourbon barrels in the center's courtyard. The program is a service project of this year's class of Leadership Lexington, for local professionals.
Early this spring, students in the new Plant to Plate program at the Family Care Center's alternative high school began by planting vegetables in donated bourbon barrels in the center's courtyard. The program is a service project of this year's class of Leadership Lexington, for local professionals. Herald-Leader

Sharon Aguilar said her 15-year-old brother likes to eat fast food, but she wants something better for herself and her 1-year-old daughter, Isabel.

So she is learning to buy and cook fresh food. She is even trying to grow lettuce in a little plot outside her family's apartment, although a rabbit seems to be getting most of it.

Aguilar, 18, read recently that she and her peers might not live as long as their parents because of poor nutrition. "I don't want that for my daughter," she said. "Maybe I can make things different for her generation."

Aguilar's interest in nutrition was sparked by Plant to Plate, a service project organized by members of this year's class of Leadership Lexington. The 33-year-old leadership development program, sponsored by Commerce Lexington, helps local professionals become more familiar with different aspects of the community.

"We started out with the idea of trying to do something with gardening, nutrition and students," said class member Kenneth Gish, an attorney with the firm Stites & Harbison.

In the process of exploring options, the class discovered Lexington's Family Care Center, which provides education and social services to try to help families become self-sufficient. Its programs include an alternative high school for young mothers and pregnant teens.

Leadership Lexington class members spent the fall and winter organizing Plant to Plate and enlisting the help of people and companies to make it happen. They launched the effort in February with a series of presentations for the girls about nutrition, shopping for food and gardening. They were given by dietician Judy Lawson, Alexa Arnold of the Lexington Farmers Market and organic farmer Sandy Canon.

Several of the school's two dozen students got to attend the Bluegrass Local Food Summit, organized each March by community garden activist Jim Embry. "He's my role model now," Aguilar said.

Leadership Lexington class members helped the girls plant container gardens in the Family Care Center's courtyard using half bourbon barrels donated by Buffalo Trace Distillery, soil given by Southern States, plants and tools from Fayette Seed, compost from Gunston Farms and garden hoses from Chevy Chase Hardware.

"It has been great to see the willingness of people in the community to get involved in this," Gish said. "It was a fun process."

The day I visited, the girls were getting lessons in healthy cooking from Jeremy Ashby, executive chef at Azur restaurant in Beaumont Centre, and Sylvia Lovely, the restaurant's owner. They do a radio show about food, Sunny Side Up, each Saturday at 11 a.m. on WLAP-630 AM.

"One of the things we want to talk about is that local is better," Ashby said as he told of good sources for locally grown food. He taught the students to properly cut vegetables and prepare a simple but delicious meal of almond-crusted chicken, carrots sautéed with thyme, corn bread, and macaroni and cheese.

Aguilar said she had never been a fan of broccoli, but she still might try the mac-and-cheese recipe at home. Her daughter already likes fresh vegetables better than she does, she admitted.

"It's not as hard as I thought it was to eat healthy," she said when asked what she has learned. "And it tastes better. I don't like canned spinach, but I like fresh spinach."

Plant to Plate has made a difference, said Joanna Rodes, director of the Family Care Center, which is run by the city's Division of Family Services.

"I'm pleasantly surprised at how much they have enjoyed it," she said of the students. "I hear them talking more about cooking at home and making healthy choices for their children."

Rodes hopes to build on many aspects of the Plant to Plate experience, from cooking classes to growing vegetables. But it will take more volunteer efforts from individuals, companies or groups like Leadership Lexington.

"We've lost a lot of resources," she said. "So we just can't do it without people who want to do good things."

For one thing, Rodes said, the students' excitement about container gardening makes her think a much larger garden on the center's grounds could be successful — if volunteers were willing to help.

"I feel that we could take any of these avenues and go 100 miles," she said.

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