For the third straight year, students at Windsor Elementary School in Arlington Heights tasted a little of the "farm-to-table" experience.
Students planted seeds in containers last winter, and in May transplanted the fledgling plants into the school's garden. In September, they harvested and on Friday attended a taste testing during their lunch period, led by Chef Tom Leavitt of White Oak Gourmet in Arlington Heights.
"Planting their own seeds, watering the plants, harvesting vegetables and eating this food grown in their own backyard -- it's a beautiful way to connect kids to the food they eat," Leavitt said.
Students tasted the butternut squash soup, that included carrots and parsnips all harvested from the Windsor garden.
"It was really buttery and creamy," declared second-grader Michael Kuczun of Arlington Heights. "I could have eaten it all day."
Fourth-grader Kotryna Vovilanskas said it smelled like chicken noodle soup, but one taste told her it didn't come out of a can.
"It was much better," she said.
Parents of Windsor students partnered with Leavitt three years ago, inspired by first lady Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" initiative and her garden on the South Lawn of the White House.
"We wanted to promote nutrition and healthy eating, and just teach kids about where food comes from," says Heidi Heidi Boesen, who co-chairs the garden project with fellow parents Klicker and Andrea Gadson.
With the help of Leavitt, who is committed to using locally sourced, organic and sustainable foods, they planted a vegetable garden on their own south lawn, and families took turns all summer tending it.
"Our goals were twofold," says Gadson. "We wanted to plant enough for a schoolwide taste testing this year, and have enough surplus to donate to local food pantries."
Which they did. At their harvest in September, students like third-grader Josh Grzesiak of Arlington Heights helped pick more than 50 butternut squash that went into their soup.
First-grader Nolan Moore was assigned to picking tomatoes.
"There were tons," he says.
The parents say they hope the garden and last week's testing, help sharpen the students' awareness of healthy food choices. But it also has led them to expand their efforts.
At the start of this year, they formed a Green Team, with the hopes of exposing them to more conservation and environmental projects, including a butterfly unit, with plans to launch them next spring.
In the meantime, Leavitt says they are on to something. Even in the food industry, he says, professionals don't always know or appreciate where their meal is coming from.
Among his philanthropic efforts is serving on the Spence Farm Foundation in Fairbury, Ill., which hosts regular farm-to-table experiences for patrons. In August, the foundation held its fourth annual day on the farm for chefs, who learned about sustainability and just how their ingredients are produced.
Besides Leavitt, parents got support from District 25's ABC/25 Foundation and funding from the Windsor PTA, as well as donations from Home Depot in Mount Prospect and expertise from urban farmer Jen Rosenthal of Planted Chicago.