FREEPORT — It’s not every day that children are delighted to eat their vegetables. It’s a different story when the kids pick the food themselves.
At Farm to Table Kids, kids don’t only learn about gardening and healthy eating, they enjoy it. In a small garden behind the Freeport Grill on Lower Main Street, children can be seen digging and exploring, all of them on a mission to fill their baskets with cucumbers, green beans and spinach.
“It’s the coolest thing to see kids pick from the garden and be like, ‘I can eat this!’ It’s amazing,” Farm to Table Kids creator Stephanie O’Neil said.
After seeing the joy her own children found in eating fresh vegetables from the garden, O’Neil decided to teach other kids to garden, too. She started Farm to Table Kids with the hope of teaching kids where food comes from, while showing them that it can be fun to eat healthy. She said she also hopes to teach kids and families about the food system.
“My mission is to provide Maine families with education and inspiration to have a garden and wanting to eat from your garden and support local Maine farms and agriculture,” O’Neil said.
Farm to Table Kids started at O’Neil’s North Yarmouth home last summer and expanded to restaurants this year. The free garden clubs meet at the Freeport Grill on Tuesdays at 10:30 a.m. She also teaches classes in North Yarmouth, Bangor and Topsham through partnerships with Sea Dog restaurants. The schedule can be found online at farmtotablekids.com.
O’Neil said the classes are open to kids of any age and that she usually has around eight families per class, with each bringing two to three kids.
During the classes, O’Neil and the kids use green space outside the restaurants and the fresh food then goes to the kitchen. During each class while the kids are gardening, the restaurant prepares a healthy lunch for them in exchange for their freshly picked vegetables.
O’Neil said this lets kids share their produce with others and makes them feel like they are helping their community by providing the restaurant with fresh ingredients. She said it lets kids be part of something that’s bigger than themselves.
Freeport Grill chef Josh Hambrick agreed. “I think it’s great for kids to broaden their view,” he said.
Hambrick said having a garden has benefited the restaurant, too, and that he can now use fresher food.
“I can go out and snip some herbs every day, as opposed to taking them out of the walk-in freezer,” he said.
O’Neil said she chose to work with the Freeport Grill and the Sea Dog restaurants because they were progressive about having healthy choices on their menus.
“Freeport Grill has been wanting to make a healthier, Maine purveyor menu,” she said.
O’Neil said the classes are great especially for Maine kids growing up in this part of the state. She said Portland is a foodie city and that kids should get involved with the food revolution going on around them. She said the program all comes back to making kids want to eat healthy.
“I want to make kids aware of healthy food options,” O’Neil said. “That’s the ultimate goal.”
The message isn’t lost on parents, either. Heather Goddu of North Yarmouth said she brings her two kids to the garden classes because she likes what O’Neil has to say.
“Her passion for Farm to Table is something I want my kids to understand, that food comes from a farm, not a grocery store,” Goddu said.
She said she likes that the program gives her kids a hands-on look at gardening and healthy eating.
“Actually digging and being part of the process is a great experience,” Goddu said.
According to O’Neil, kids desire to dig and play outside is one of the reasons why gardening can be so much fun.
“Kids are natural explorers,” she said. “That’s the magic of gardens.”
Stephanie O’Neil helps Thomas Robinson, 4, pick a cucumber as his sister Avery, left, waits for her turn in the garden. O’Neil runs Farm to Table Kids, a program that with the help of area restaurants teaches kids the benefits of growing and eating their own food.
Stephanie O’Neil’s children Joey, 2, and Autumn, 4, learn to garden at home with their mom as well as in her class three days a week.
Freeport Grill chef Josh Hambrick accepts the freshly picked vegetables from the Farm to Table Kids children so they can learn about the process of food going from the farm to the table.