A bounty of benefitsLocal chefs team with community in the garden

Chef Lisa Savage, of Sage restaurant, assesses the harvest at Sovereign Avenue School in Atlantic City. She is working with a group of chefs to teach students about growing healthy food to prepare at home.

For most chefs at the shore, summer is spent currying favor among hungry tourists and part-time residents. But a handful of local chefs are dedicating their slow season to cultivating a different crop of followers - local school children and seniors.

AtlantiCare Foundation has been using community gardens to raise nutrition awareness throughout its service area of Atlantic, Cape May and southern Ocean counties. School children, seniors and people at community institutions such as the Absecon Lighthouse are invited to tend their own plots with guidance from Rutgers Cooperative Extension master gardeners. The amateur gardeners learn about composting and the environment, and the harvest yields fresh produce for residents of "food deserts" such as Atlantic City, where there is only one supermarket.

"We started with the growing green initiative, working with the schools and we had a good relationship, but we wanted to take it to the next level and open a dialogue about health and food," said Samantha Kiley, AtlantiCare Foundation's director of community partnerships and engagement. "Research shows if you expose kids at an early age to vegetables, they're more likely to eat them when they get older."

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But studies also have shown that just exposing kids to new fruits and vegetables is not enough to get them to eat a more balanced diet. They need to be taught how to prepare food and work new ingredients into meals.

That's where the Chef's Council comes in. Cookie Till, a nutritionist who owns Steve and Cookie's by the Bay in Margate, was concerned by the lack of healthy foods available in her hometown of Atlantic City. So she contacted several of her chef buddies for help "adopting" and raising some nutrition-savvy cooks there.

Luke Palladino, who made his mark in Italian cuisine in Northfield before opening a second restaurant in Revel, adopted the Absecon Lighthouse and plans to give a pickling demonstration there next month. Michael Newkirk, at the Knife and Fork Inn, in Atlantic City, took on educating kids at the Texas Avenue School while Mussel Bar's chef de cuisine, Dean Dupuis, is reaching an older crowd in an old playground at Hope Community Garden.

Even the Atlantic City Country Club in Northfield is getting involved, seeking to expand the grassroots initiative into Northfield and Pleasantville.

Lisa Savage, who owns Sage and Lisa's restaurants in Ventnor, partnered with the gardening club at the Sovereign Avenue School in Atlantic City. The school has used AtlantiCare grants to grow tomatoes, broccoli, beets and herbs in raised beds and planters for the past three years. Now educators are hoping Savage and her nutritionist friend Danielle Lombardo can guide students through the next step: what to do with their harvest of cherry tomatoes.

This is not a mass-education mission; this is slow, organic cultivation. The students listened intently as Savage and Lombardo discussed which tomatoes would make the thickest sauce. When asked, the students shyly described their favorites among dinner offerings at home.

"We're thinking of introducing them to different families of vegetables," Savage said. "One meeting we talk about the tomato family; the next time we talk about eggplant and go over the different types of eggplant and make a dish with some. The same with peppers and cabbage.

"We want to give each child some (produce) they can take home with them, with a recipe and the nutritional properties. Often they're not the ones who cook at home. So the parents get involved (with the cooking) and it becomes a part of the family tradition."

At 11 years old, sixth-graders Tho Pham, Tiffany Giang and Linh Tran all said they feel capable of learning a new recipe and teaching it to their moms. The students were especially excited about taking a field trip to Lisa's - Savage's pizzeria - to learn how to make pizza from scratch.

Cousins Dolores and Jetzaly Medina, both 10, peppered the white-smocked Savage with questions about restaurant operations. The two often make Mexican staples such as tamales at home with their moms, but Italian food was new and exciting enough to make their eyes widen and sparkle as they talked.

"Do you cook in one kitchen for both restaurants? Do you make Lasagna? Do you put cheese in the pizza crust?" Jetzaly wanted to know.

"Cheese in the pizza crust, never," replied Savage, who trained in Italy. "I'm a purist; I don't put chicken on my pizza, no beans. I'll never make a buffalo chicken pizza, I'm sorry."

Fahiya Ahamed, the youngest of the group at 9, seemed to have a head start on the others due to her parents' vegetarianism. Savage asked her what vegetables she eats every day and about exotic preparations from Bangladesh her mother uses on tomatoes and eggplant. This brought the conversation around to the health properties of various ethnic cuisines, and trying new foods.

"In my other hat, as a mom, I'm always trying to get my daughter to try new foods or to try again foods she thinks she may not have liked," Kiley, of AtlantiCare said. She recently snuck pureed beets into a batch of homemade cupcakes for Jilliane, 2. "A lot of times, whatever you think you don't like, there are four other ways to make it that you might enjoy."

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Spicy medicine

Charlotte Nagele-Boles, the school nurse at Sovereign Avenue School, says she's seen neighborhood residents stop and pick herbs for dinner from the planter pots that line the playground fence in front of the school, and that's fine.

"But I'm more concerned with the medicinal uses of herbs," she says.

Oregano, for example, is an antifungal and antiviral agent - the oil is used to treat cold sores - besides adding Italian spice to tomato sauce. Thyme tea soothes bronchial issues, while mint is more than just an herbal tea flavor; it will cure what ails your gastrointestinal tract.

For more information on AtlantiCare Foundation's Growing Green initiative, see atlanticare.org/growinggreen. To participate in the Chef's Council, email samantha.kiley@atlanticare.org

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