Laughter and the sound of young voices filled the air as small hands dug into the dirt, carefully planting cucumber starters and kale seeds in small raised bed gardens at Sea Dog Brew Pub in Bangor.
The 17 children, all preschool students at the Bangor YMCA, planted vegetables and herbs that in late summer will adorn the plates of restaurant-goers and families eating at the pub. It’s an initiative Stephanie O’Neil, avid gardener and mom of two, calls the Sea Dog Kids Garden Club.
O’Neil started a gardening club for children last year at her small farm in North Yarmouth. She had noticed quite a few moms stopping by to see her gardens and asking if their children could come help or ask her questions.
She realized that the children loved learning about the science behind gardening, something she believes is crucial to Maine’s success as a state. So, she started a group called Farm to Table Kids and the garden club.
“Gardening and agriculture is at the forefront of Maine’s future,” O’Neil said.
A perfect partnership
O’Neil’s initiative this year includes her personal garden, gardens at the Sea Dog restaurants in Topsham and Bangor, and weekly “club” events for local children to learn about growing, preparing and consuming homegrown fruits and veggies.
The Bangor garden, which sits between the back of the restaurant and the waterfront walking path, includes cucumbers, beans, tomatoes, herbs, kale and a few flowers. At the recent kick-off event, children planted the vegetables, created garden fence ornaments and painted vases the restaurant will fill with flowers and place on tables.
One of the restaurant’s chefs will maintain the garden, and all the food harvested this fall will be used in dishes included on Sea Dog’s “localvore” menu, general manager Marc Smith said, adding that the company is thrilled to partner with O’Neil.
“We love the open mindedness of small children,” he said. “This type of thing really helps them associate eating fresh with fun.”
At her classes, O’Neil will often start by reading a book, then give the children a list of tasks to complete in the garden. It may include planting, watering or harvesting depending on the time of year. Then, they all enjoy a snack made from the produce she chooses to feature that week.
“If we have carrot day then we’ll plant carrots, eat fresh carrots and maybe I’ll make a carrot cake so they can really see all the things you can do with them,” she said.
O’Neil decided to partner with Sea Dog because she believes in the company’s push to include local and fresh ingredients in its prepared food.
“[At restaurants], my kids want chicken nuggets and pizza, so I try to seek out restaurants where you can rest assured that if they eat chicken nuggets, it’s at least real chicken,” O’Neil said.
A continuing project
Throughout the summer, O’Neil plans to hold classes for children at the various gardens. Even though the Bangor garden was planted by the YMCA class, all area children are invited to participate in future activities.
She’s trying to work with Casco Butter to hold a butter making workshop, and she’s growing popping corn in her garden that will supply all of the Sea Dog restaurants in Maine. Smith said he hopes to have the chef in Bangor hold cooking workshops with the children once the vegetables reach maturity.
It’s an effort, the YMCA and many parents can get behind, Kristen Burwood, child care and youth development director at the YMCA said.
“We have a nutrition program … and this coincides perfectly because it goes right along with healthy eating and learning about using fresh fruits and vegetables,” she said.
Most of the children had at least one type of vegetable they absolutely loved and another, they just couldn’t stomach. One even said he eats a cucumber as part of his lunch every day. However, almost all of them said they were most excited to play in the dirt and plant the gardens, especially after O’Neil told them they were perfect for the task.
“Your little hands are the perfect size to hold tiny seeds, and your feet are the perfect size for walking carefully between the rows of a garden,” she told the children as they sat in a circle around her.
Burwood said she hopes the children who participated in the kick-off event will have an increased interest in fresh food, and in turn, talk their parents into trying gardening or eating local.
“Maybe they’ll go home and encourage mom and dad to plant a garden,” she said. “These are healthy living skills that they’ll learn, know and use for the rest of their lives.”
O’Neil said she hopes her clubs continue to grow and help encourage a new generation of foodies who want to know where and how their food is grown.
“I want kids to have a sense of ownership with the restaurant … and I also just think gardens inspire people,” she said.
Interested in the Kids Farm to Table project or want to get involved? O’Neil’s website, farmtotablekids.blogspot.com, includes photos, recipes and stories about previous projects as well as information about upcoming gardening classes and events.