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Slow Food is processing 1,500 pounds of carrots for school lunches during a pandemic, and teaching students about healthy food and eating.

Interview by Anna Mulé
Words by Vivian Whitney
Edited by Giselle Kennedy Lord
Photos from Blue Watermelon Project

“When the world is coming down, and you can still make a difference, it’s super exciting. We all want to have meaning. You want to have opportunity — when there’s crisis — for kids to be fed and farmers to be supported.”

Charleen Badman had been visiting schools in the Phoenix area to teach students about healthy food and eating when something dawned on her, “Why am I constantly cooking for them? They need to get in here and do it.” Prior to that moment, and with just 20 minutes during lunchtime, Badman picked herbs from school gardens and made meatballs for students. She expediently introduced different foods as snacks for students to try before heading back to class. After asking teachers to have the students for one hour, Badman set up stations in classrooms for students to make meals together. Some students picked basil in the school garden, and others whipped the fresh herb into pesto while yet another group cooked pasta. One station was in charge of tearing up bread and toasting it while another made “garden water” to drink with the meal. When the food prep was done, Badman and all the students came together to set the table, sit down, and eat together. Badman fondly remembers a seven-year-old say, “We all [made] part of this meal, then we came together.”

The Blue Watermelon Project is led by Badman and affiliated with Slow Food Phoenix. The project engages chefs from the area to work with students in school to “integrate taste education and interactive programming into curriculum and everyday life.” The project started small, but Badman is working steadily towards the project’s goal of having a chef at every school. Right now, the Blue Watermelon Project is in 25 schools with 20 active chefs. Badman describes the name Blue Watermelon as “unusual, but friendly.” One of the project’s chefs owns a popsicle company and makes blue watermelon popsicles for students, and the name stuck. The project’s name makes it fun and approachable for students but also paves the way for getting to know unfamiliar foods, like a yellow beet or swiss chard. Through the Blue Watermelon Project, chefs have found ways to make these unusual foods a little more friendly to young eaters, in the collective making of things like a yellow beet smoothie or a swiss chard pancake.

In addition to cooking and garden workshops with younger students, the project works to educate students at higher levels as well, with initiatives like talking to 6th graders about waterfall with crops or bringing in a fishmonger to teach students about the importance of sustainability in the restaurant industry. “We can help them think about their future,” Badman says. “Not just what mom should be buying, but also choices for themselves. What does that [choice] mean for you and for the environment?”

When schools began shutting down in Phoenix and across the country on account of COVID-19, the Blue Watermelon Project focused on how to process carrots for school lunches. The project covered the cost of the produce from local farmers and used the carrots to supplement meals for students who still relied on school lunches, processing over 1,500 pounds of carrots for 25,000 meals in four weeks. “We were there cutting the carrots. A group washing, sliding it down, sending over to bagging. Putting them in boxes for distribution to schools. It made us all feel really good,” Badman remembers.

The Blue Watermelon Project has shifted its approach to food education during the pandemic as well. The team began working on “Chef in the Pantry” videos for students, to teach kids how to prep, organize, and cook in their own kitchens. The video content aligns the staying organized in the kitchen with staying organized in their current and new school life. Members of the Blue Watermelon project planted corn, beans and squash for students in August., which will be harvested in October and November. Badman, along with a group of volunteers, plans to put together kits of soil and seeds for students to garden with in the Spring. 

Though COVID forced the Blue Watermelon Project to put their established curriculum on hold, they’re developing creative ways to continue teaching students about healthy eating and food. They’re also working to integrate Indigenous history and foodways, as well as the Ark of Taste and biodiversity, into future lessons. The team is working to make the most out of distance teaching and learning, “When the world is coming down, and you can still make a difference, it’s super exciting,” Badman says. “We all want to have meaning. You want to have opportunity — [especially] during a crisis — for kids to be fed and farmers to be supported.”