Erin Bassett cultivates garden produce and relationships with school-aged children as the culinary instructor with Cornerstones of Care’s Healthy Living and Food Systems program.
Part of a not-for-profit organization, this program encourages hundreds of grade- and high-schoolers to work on three acres of gardens at two Kansas City sites to plant, weed, water, harvest and cook produce they grow.
Q: What exactly is this Cornerstones of Care program?
A: Many of the 250 Kansas City area youth served in our program are living in food insecure households, which means they have limited or uncertain access to food at home.
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The healthy living and food systems program has hands-on, outdoor educational opportunities focused on mentoring and gardening with these children. Partners such as Cultivate KC, Kansas City Community Gardens, Giving Grove, Episcopal Community Services and Boys Grow all help our program to be successful, along with the program’s manager, Theo Bunch.
It’s so wonderful, because the children all get to experience the natural world and witness the miracle of life from a tiny seed. After they harvest, we prepare the produce in our outdoor kitchen, then send the recipe and a bag full of produce home with the children so they can prepare and share food with their families, too.
Q: Do you reap more than just produce from your work in the garden with these children?
A: This is such fulfilling work for me: to be able to watch how these children are growing in good ways, too. The garden provides a natural environment that promotes team building and positive peer behavior as these youth work together.
Individually, you also see how each child has an opportunity to build self-esteem, self-awareness and develop empathy toward others and the natural world around them.
The garden always needs tending, so these youth are learning responsibility in taking care of the plants, so they will yield a good harvest. Instead of just sitting in a classroom, these kids are also outdoors being active, increasing their fine and gross motor skills. There are plenty of opportunities outdoors to improve their critical thinking, reading and comprehension skills.
The reward for all this hard work is to be able for them to enjoy the fruits of their labors to prepare and eat healthy meals and bring produce back to their family. The garden gives a lot.
Q: You seem very passionate about reaching out to these kids through food …
A: I spent my most formative years in rural Garnett, Kansas, and learned to cook for my brother when I was young because my parents weren’t always around due to addiction issues. I’ve had to battle my own issues, and I believe that has made me a stronger person in being able to help others deal with hardships.
As a young adult, I lacked direction and found my way through food, becoming a certified sous chef through the Johnson County Community College program and working in a number of professional kitchens both in Kansas City and in Chicago. This program has been as good for me, as it has been for these kids. It’s very therapeutic to spend time in the garden and teach others how to make simple things like salsa, pickles and salad made from produce that’s just been picked.
Q: Is this salad based on the seasonality of the garden?
A: Panzanella is a Tuscan salad that is traditionally made of bread and tomatoes, which is popular in the summer. Chunks of bread soak up the juice of the tomatoes and the vinaigrette.
Since the tomato season is waning in the garden, this is my twist on the traditional recipe, using roasted winter squash to add sweetness to this salad. An abundance of lemon vinaigrette is the soaking agent for the bread. We used fresh arugula from the garden as the green in this salad.
Do all the prep work of roasting the squash and bread and this salad comes together fast. Have a crowd of hungry people ready to eat after you put this salad together, because it demands to be eaten immediately.
Mary G. Pepitone is a freelance writer who lives in Leawood. She also writes a nationally syndicated home column. E-mail her at email@example.com.
If you want to help
To volunteer for or donate to the Cornerstones of Care’s Healthy Living and Food Systems program, go to CornerstonesofCare.org and click the “Ways to Help” link.
Butternut Squash and Arugula Panzanella Salad
Makes 16 servings.
For the squash:
1 butternut squash, peeled, halved, seeded and cut into 1-inch dice
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
For the croutons:
1 loaf crusty Italian bread, cut into 1-inch dice
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup fresh sage leaves, rinsed and roughly chopped
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
For the salad:
1 (8-ounce) package arugula or spicy greens mix, cleaned and spun dry
1 small red onion, thinly sliced
1/4 cup capers, rinsed
1/2 cup goat or feta cheese crumbles
3/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
To prepare squash and croutons:
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
In a large mixing bowl, toss squash with olive oil, salt and pepper until evenly coated. Pour in a single layer on a baking sheet. Place in oven and roast for 45 minutes. Halfway through roasting, turn squash pieces over, to evenly brown on all sides. Remove when squash is fork tender and allow to cool.
In a large mixing bowl, toss bread with olive oil, sage, salt and pepper until evenly coated. Pour in a single layer on a baking sheet. Bake for 10 to 15 minutes, or until bread is golden brown and crispy. Set aside and allow to cool.
To prepare salad:
In a large serving bowl, gently toss greens, onion, capers, prepared squash and croutons until well incorporated. Top with cheese and set aside.
In a small bowl, whisk olive oil and lemon juice together to create a vinaigrette. Pour mixture over salad and serve immediately.
Per serving: 282.5 calories (54 percent from fat), 17.5 grams total fat (3 grams saturated), 3.5 milligrams cholesterol, 28 grams carbohydrates, 5 grams protein, 337.5 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.