Veggie U’s Food & Wine Gala Benefit Helps Educate Kids on Healthy Growing and Eating

Oberlin’s Veggie U has more than 6,500 of its classroom plant science garden programs in 36 states and Washington DC.

Sat 9/30 @ 7PM

Literally and figuratively, Veggie U is taking a grassroots approach to help alleviate the nationwide epidemic that is childhood obesity.

In a time where the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that one in five children is obese, the Oberlin-based operation has found success empowering teachers and students nationwide with its plant science program. Today, there are more than 6,500 Veggie U classroom garden programs in 36 states and Washington D.C.

Naturally being a nonprofit means fundraising is key. This leads us to Veggie U’s Food & Wine Gala taking place from Sat 9/30 @ 7-11pm at the 925 Building in Cleveland. The affair features wine from Wente Vineyards, as well as live music, a silent auction and wine pull.

CoolCleveland talked to Veggie U executive director Nadia Clifford about the nonprofit’s mission, fundraiser and impact across the country.

Tell us about the Veggie U mission.

Our mission is to provide educational curriculum and information to teachers so they could educate children about the connection between growing food and eating healthy. So we provide a complete indoor classroom garden for elementary schools. The garden and the curriculum are geared to second, third or fourth graders, depending on where the school feels comfortable teaching. The Cleveland Metropolitan School District has it all in second grade. Akron Public Schools has it in third grade. It’s a five to six-week program. There are 25 different lesson plans available online for teachers. And truly the program is based on teaching children plant science. They’re growing a garden in the classroom, but they also learn about nutrition. They learn about eating healthy.

What’s included in the program?

They get a grow light, five bags of soil, flats and seeds. They get worms because they build a worm farm. So they’re really doing very interactive activities, and every day they’re watching their garden grow. We believe strongly, and research has proven, that children that are actually engaged in growing food are much more likely to participate in eating it. No different than children that help you cook are much more likely to eat the food that they’ve helped prepare.

How have your efforts evolved over the years?

A couple of years ago because we had a lot of requests from special education teachers, we got a grant and developed a similar program based on the same concepts to teach children about gardening. We started focusing on only children with autism, but felt we could expand that to encompass a much broader audience. That has proven to be very successful. We’ve gone into some of those classrooms and both the teacher and the children are very excited about seeing these plants grow and learning plant science in the interim.

What’s the cost of the program?

The cost of the program is $450 per classroom. For every year thereafter it’s half the cost because we replenish only the perishables. Only about 10 percent of our schools can afford to buy the program. We get requests from teachers all of the time who hear about us. A lot of this is word of mouth. We always look for grants and corporate sponsors to help us underwrite the costs of these gardens for the schools. Our goal this year is to place 1,000 gardens. That’s a combination of new and refills.

Tell us about the Food & Wine Gala fundraiser.

We find the fundraiser helps us to raise awareness for what we do. This year we’re hoping for about 400 to 450 people to attend. We’ve got some great chefs and great dishes. We’ll have about 12 food stations and a silent auction, wine pull, music. And we’ll have teachers there that will talk about our program. It’s not only raising funds, but I like to think it’s building friends and awareness. I look to maybe having people come back and volunteer after this event, or maybe spread the word through social media.

Finally, at a time where childhood obesity is viewed as an epidemic, do you feel optimistic that kids are on the right path?

Yes, I am optimistic. Right now we have this program for this second and third graders and also a program for children with special needs. A third program we have gotten some initial funding to launch will be for 3-to-5-year-old children. Research has shown that the earlier you start the better. There are preschools out there that are looking for programs like this to introduce children at that young age to vegetables and healthy eating. If we start in preschool, maybe we can get the parents more involved. So, we’re looking to make a change in their attitudes. We’re looking to make a change in their willingness to try foods like this. I think that’s starting to happen.

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