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Teaching kids about food from the ground up

Stephanie Reuter has melded her expertise and passion to create Grow. Cook. Learn., her exciting new Lansing business that uses a hands-on approach to teach kids about community, gardening, and cooking.
Since her childhood, Stephanie Reuter has been fascinated with gardening and horticulture. That fascination led her on a growing journey that included botanical gardens, MSU’s horticulture program, a decade in urban youth education and planning, and a masters in youth development.

After marrying her husband Jeremy and having their daughter, Jillian, Reuter realized she wanted to spend more time at home, and the seeds for starting her own business were sown. Reuter says her green thumb sprouted when she was about eight. She’d helped her dad plant the family garden at their home in Sanford, Michigan. “I loved learning about the plants,” she says.

Growing things directly from seed really intrigued Reuter, so much so, that her dad built her a greenhouse for her tenth birthday. “It was awesome. It was like my clubhouse, and I spent more time there in my childhood than anywhere else,” says Reuter.

That sense of wonder and fascination was something Reuter wanted to share. So, she decided to combine her passion for growing things with her unique background in community gardening and working with kids to create Grow. Cook. Learn. Now she’s building innovative programs that teach children all about growing and preparing food.

Let the Planting Begin

Grow. Cook. Learn. officially took off in April of this year, just as the planting season was moving into full swing. Reuter created programs for kids of all ages, designed to let them experience a full season of planting and harvesting along with cooking and nutrition basics.

“I offered one week for each age group and rotated them, so the kids who attended all three weeks got to see the changes in the plants as they grew,” Reuter says. 

Reuter worked in collaboration with East Lansing Food Coop (ELFCO), Play and Fork in the Road, and also created programming for Early LCC.

Garden beds were planted at Early LCC and at the Old Oakland Community Garden, which is a short walk from Fork in the Road. They also planted beds around the restaurant. “On the first day of each camp, we did a garden tour, so the kids knew what everything was,” she says.

Reuter did some form of planting every week, such as starting herb or flower containers. “We also did plant adoption, so the kids would make an ownership connection,” says Reuter. “They took the adoption very seriously. They knew which plant they adopted, and they watered and weeded and took good care of it.”

From the Ground to the Table

The camps catered to kids ages eight to twelve. They were the busiest part of the summer, beginning in the morning at Fork in the Road where cooking and nutrition were the first items on the schedule.

The Fork in the Road connection was great for Reuter's programming needs, and the restaurant's owners, Jesse Hahn and Ben Ackerman were pleased to take part. "The local community is our main focus at Fork in the Road and Trailer Park’d,” says Ackerman.
“When Stephanie asked us to share our space, we eagerly jumped at the opportunity. If the small contribution that we made could help educate kids about nutrition, food, gardening and sustainability, then we’re achieving our goal.”
Reuter agrees. “It was amazing. They let us use the restaurant for free, and in exchange I gardened around the restaurant and harvested for them. They’re all about doing what’s right.”

In addition to the camps, Reuter ran several one-hour sessions for one to six-year-olds through ELFCO and Play. The kids made simple dishes and parents were there to assist. Art, singing, and pretend play were also part of the program.

Reuter says families reported that the kids wanted to make all the recipes at home. “They taught their family what they learned and how to do it.”

The Early LCC program followed a similar format. “The cooking is where everything came together,” says Reuter. “We always used at least one ingredient from the garden, so when we made chocolate zucchini muffins, they saw the zucchini in the garden and understood that they were cooking with it.”

Growing the Future

As for the future of Grow. Cook. Learn., Reuter has big plans, including possible afterschool and evening programs. She also wants to expand her early childhood offerings and community outreach. Fork in the Road will continue to be part of the program as well.

“We’re really excited at the prospect of seeing returning kids to the program,” says Hahn. “It will be awesome to see what they retained from last summer, and if they have applied it at home. Hopefully Stephanie’s passion had an impact on the way they view food.”

Reuter is hoping for returning students as well as new ones. “I would like to have enough locations and programs to hire additional staff,” she says.  “There are a lot of young adults in the field who are very passionate about gardening and nutrition that want the experience of programming,” says Reuter. “That adds a mentoring component that I really like.”

Reflecting on her first year, Reuter is happy about the outcome and excited to start the next phase. “I learned a lot this year and look forward to planning for next season.” She says she loves working with kids of all ages and seeing their enthusiasm.

“Having the kids involved in the growing and harvesting of the food encourages them to try it. If they grow it and pick it, they want to eat it,” she says.  “It’s about encouraging an interest and giving them the desire and confidence to want to go home and do those things,” says Reuter. “They work through fears about trying new things and expand their likes and their understanding.”
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