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LAS CRUCES – At East Picacho Elementary School, fourth-grade teacher Ashley Cartwright played a video for her 22 students about edamame (the Japanese name for boiled green soybeans still in the pod). 

It was the last “Cooking with Kids” tasting class before winter break, and the highlight of the lesson was tasting samples of the foods being introduced.

“‘Edamame’ – this is a fun word to spell,” Ms. Cartwright suggested as her students spelled the word and then counted the syllables. 

The lesson presented four varieties from the legume family: green beans, chickpeas (also known as garbanzo beans), lentils, and edamame. 

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After watching a short documentary about the different foods, Cartwright and her students read from a prepared lesson packet. Meanwhile, Cartwright seized opportunities to incorporate language instruction, drawing, math and statistics into the lesson.

The students also had an opportunity to taste each food.

Each month this school year (excluding December), hundreds of Las Cruces classrooms have incorporated a food tasting class into their schedules as part of a larger initiative by the Las Cruces Public Schools to promote healthier diets and general knowledge about fruits, vegetables, beans and grains.

Claire Legault, who departed as manager of nutrition services at the district just before Christmas, told the Sun-News more than 350 teachers were participating in the “Cooking With Kids” tasting lessons, federally funded through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Supplemental Nutrition Education program (SNAP-Ed). 

Teachers receive grade-level appropriate lesson booklets that include nutrition information and resources for further study, and a tasting chart where students record their experience of each food involving all of their senses: drawing each food, describing in words their smell and physical texture, and, of course, how they taste.

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The multi-faceted lessons are designed to engage motor and language skills. There are even options for physical activities related to the material. 

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention promotes nutritional and physical education programs in schools based on research linking improved academic performance, school behavior, and cognitive development to diet, exercise and overall health. 

At Las Cruces Public Schools, Legault’s department is charged with making sure the breakfast and lunch served across the district daily meet nutritional standards. At the middle and high school level, competing influences present a challenge. 

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Students in Ashley Cartwright’s fourth grade class at East Picacho Elementary School learned about legumes and nutrition on Thursday, November 29, 2018. (Photo: Josh Bachman/Sun-News)

“If we’re selling junk food right outside the classroom, the environment is not consistent,” Legault said. Although school vending machines and event concessions offer healthy options, foods brought into school from home or neighboring fast food restaurants may detract from efforts to promote healthy options. Thus, the nutrition department also engages in education efforts aimed at kids and food choices at home.

More: LCPS students get locally grown vegetables for a week

As demonstrated in Ms. Cartwright’s classroom at East Picacho Elementary, the lessons are sufficiently unscripted to allow teachers freedom to incorporate other subjects (such as history or social studies) or skills into the lesson. Teachers also suggest food groups for the monthly lessons, which presented varieties of melons and apples in previous lessons this year. 

“They also suggested we do a tasting of cheese,” Legault said, “but cheese isn’t one of the things we need to get more of in our diet.”

With the assistance of her students, Cartwright passed out paper bowls and napkins. Food samples prepared by the school’s kitchen staff were distributed one at a time to be examined, smelled, and eaten: roasted chickpeas (known also as garbanzo beans), green beans, boiled lentils with some added seasoning, and finally the edamame pods. 

Giving the lentils a sniff, one student remarked, “These smell like dog food.” 

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Rogelio Torres, 9, reacts to the taste of lentils during a nutrition class in Ashley Cartwright’s home room at East Picacho Elementary School, Thursday, November 29, 2018. (Photo: Josh Bachman/Sun-News)

Cartwright discouraged comments and face-making, however, lest other students be discouraged from trying something new. A key part of the lesson was the students independently describing their personal experience of each food. 

After each food was tasted, Cartwright polled students on their preferred options. Green beans were a standout favorite, with edamame a distant second, though lentils and chickpeas found some advocates. 

Once that was done, students proceeded to generate graphs organizing data on the preferred flavors, smells and textures.

“The hope is that they try it, and then ask their parents for it at the grocery store,” Legault said, adding that enhanced knowledge of what grocery markets offer besides packaged foods and snacks will bolster household budgets as well as health. 

Algernon D’Ammassa can be reached at 575-541-5451, adammassa@lcsun-news.com or @AlgernonActor on Twitter.

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