If there’s one person who can get your kids to eat kale, it’s Ashleigh Parsons. Had she put her Harvard master’s to work in the classroom, the sweet 29-year-old would be everyone’s favorite teacher. But before getting that degree, she spent time juggling a job at an Oakland farm-to-table restaurant with volunteer work at an after-school program in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district. Taking the low-income kids from the food desert to the farmer’s market put her on a different path.
“The food we feed our kids is deeply important,” she tells me from a sunny window seat at Alma, the restaurant she now co-owns with chef Ari Taymor. Parsons and Taymor met in San Francisco and together imagined a restaurant-outreach combo. Then he went off to cook in France and Copenhagen and she went to Harvard. The two reunited in 2012 to open Alma.
The restaurant was named Best New Restaurant in America by Bon Appétit in 2013, and its location on a gritty corner of Broadway and Olympic in an up-and-coming part of downtown puts its Alma Community Outreach program – currently serving two high schools and one elementary school located within five miles of the restaurant – where the need is great.
You have a degree in education. What made you decide to pursue that?
My background is in psychology, and I took a few years off before deciding to get my master’s in education, and I was mostly interested in education that happens in non-formal learning environments. I worked at an after-school program in San Francisco, a free after-school program, mostly with low-income students, and I became really interested in the education that takes place outside of the classroom.
And when did you then decide to devote yourself to food?
While I was at the after-school program, I was also working to pay the bills in a restaurant that was super farm-to-table in Oakland. I’d started taking the kids [from the program] on Saturdays to the farmers’ market, and just started getting really interested in their connection with food. The program was located in what we would call a food desert, and so the lack of access to food was just really unnerving. And when I started seeing their interest and engagement with this food that was at the farmers’ market, I had this thought that we could be doing something more with food and education outside of the classroom.
Did you grow up cooking?
No. My connection to food really began when I moved to San Francisco after college and became exposed to people such as Alice Waters and the farmer’s markets that exist there. And I just became deeply interested in cooking and understanding where our food comes from.
What does a typical after-school outreach session look like?
Two of our three schools have edible gardens. And at those schools, whatever’s ready to be harvested really kind of drives the lesson. So we work with our gardener who maintains the garden, and she reports to us the week before: Hey, kale, green beans, onions, whatever, is ready. We arrive at the school with a few volunteers. We circle up around the garden, and our farmer – who actually is our farmer/forager at Alma restaurant – will lead a harvesting lesson. Then we move over to the table and prepare a series of recipes, usually three to four. We break into groups, prepare those and share out what was the process. What did you do to make this dressing or this salad? And then we all eat together, clean up together and it takes about an hour and a half or so. We call it “garden-to-table,” because you’re literally cleaning the dirt off from the garden.
What has all this work with children taught you about how and what kids like to eat?
It’s taught me that they’re innately interested in learning where their food comes from, and engaged. All of our students, even the ones that kind of kick and scream before the class and they don’t want to come – which doesn’t happen very often, but it does every once in a while with the high school students – even with that, once they’re actually holding the leaves of the kale or making some sort of bean-and-rice recipe, there’s just this connection that happens automatically. And seeing that come from students who maybe have never had a connection with food before is really cool.
Is there a gateway vegetable that you have found that helps lure people, especially kids, toward eating vegetables?
Surprisingly, kale is like the miracle worker, both savory and sweet. We make kale smoothies with bananas and strawberries. Kids love smoothies, so that’s been a hit even with the 18-year-olds. And we also make a massaged kale salad with avocado and nuts that they kind of go crazy for.
So is it the kale, or is it the avocado and the other things around the kale?
I don’t think you’re going to have kids munching on raw kale and loving it. But often when we use kale, the kids are also harvesting the kale. You really see them stunned and surprised that they were able to pick their food, wash their food, make their food and then eat their food.
What is your ultimate goal for the outreach program? How would you like to see it grow?
We would really like to first, on a smaller scale, establish a third garden, so that all of the schools we’re working with have the edible gardens as well as the curriculum. And then we’re really interested in curriculum development. We’re interested in evaluating our curriculum to see whether it’s even successful in helping children connect with their food. Doing pre-tests and post-tests and maybe bringing on a university to do some of that research. We also eventually would love to have sort of a food lab, where there’s a central place that is a more elaborate garden, rather than just a small plot, where students could come, maybe do internships, and have a little bit more of a thorough experience with gardening and harvesting.
Any interest in geographically expanding the program in some way?
I think we’d be open to other schools, but right now we’re a tiny team. We have three of us who kind of just do everything, and then we have a small pool of volunteers. So it’s really fortunate that the schools are close and that we can cultivate strong relationships with the parents and the staff and the teachers. So at this moment, I don’t think so, but perhaps in the future.
How can families help with what you are doing in your outreach program?
We do take donations on our website, which is connected to the restaurant’s website. We’re just starting out, so we have a small budget, and those donations help directly with building gardens and allowing for curriculum to continue, maybe over the summer as well. And then we also are always looking for volunteers. And the volunteer commitment is pretty light, all things considered. We’re looking for volunteers who are able to come twice a month to the schools and do some sort of cooking and help with the lesson.
And do volunteers need any sort of qualifications?
We do have a pretty thorough background check, so there’s a little bit of paperwork. But in terms of experience, we have people who are professional chefs, and then we have people who have never cooked in their lives. So no, not necessarily. It’s helpful if you’ve worked with kids in the past, but not a requirement.
Learn more at www.almacommunityoutreach.org.