Sierra Harvest Tasting Week celebrates 6th year in Nevada County schools |

Sierra Harvest Tasting Week celebrates 6th year in Nevada County schools

Twelve year old cooking prodigy Mason Partak gets 4th grade students at Cottage Hill Elementary School engaged in healthy food as he demonstrates how to prepare a tasty salad Tuesday October 11.
Elias Funez/ |

Getting young people to think healthy, eat healthy, and be healthy has been the goal of Nevada County schools’ Farm to School program, and for Sierra Harvest — the nonprofit helping to promote the program through its Tasting Week — putting students in direct contact with local food preparers is just the way to do that.

Tasting Week demonstrations, presented in classrooms and auditoriums in 23 different area schools, have brought in food preparers of all ages and experiences to help students better make that connection with what they put on their plates.

Twelve-year-old Mason Partak from Auburn, who has recently struck a bit of fame for being the winner of the Chopped Junior in New York competition and has been featured on numerous TV stations, proved to be the perfect person to help engage students about their food. The well-spoken seventh grader, who already has his own salad dressing line, brought his larger-than-life personality on Tuesday to the cafeteria of Cottage Hill Elementary School in South County, where he engaged fourth graders with his knowledge of healthy food and his salad preparing demonstration.

And even though it was his first time providing a demo for other students, the reception was resoundingly positive.

“We see kids who wouldn’t touch vegetables before, now they’re promoting them with their friends.”Malaika Bishop Co-executive director of Sierra Harvest

“If your son or your daughter is going off to college, you don’t want them eating Top Ramen, Carl’s Jr., or things like that,” Partak said. “You want them cooking real food and eating real food.”

A natural student teacher

Partak quickly demonstrated the operation of a spiralizer, before handing it to the students to try themselves.

“When you work with your peers, you’re willing to try something more often,” said Miriam Limov, Sierra Harvest’s engagement manager, following Partak’s presentation.

Since the inception of the Farm to School program, Sierra Harvest has reached more than 6,700 students and 96 percent of the K-8 population in western Nevada County. And, according to representatives, 43 percent more students say they like fruits and vegetables after trying them at school, with 66 percent more reporting their families now shop directly from farmers via local markets.

“We see kids who wouldn’t touch vegetables before, now they’re promoting them with their friends,” said Malaika Bishop, co-executive director of Sierra Harvest. “We get peer pressure involved,” she added jokingly.

“Kids will eat anything when it’s not supervised by mom and dad,” Cottage Hill Parent Teacher Club volunteer Wanda Mertens said. “This is the most amazing thing to have a child teach a child. Mason represents to the kids a dream that can be accomplished.”

And the accomplishments continue to add up for Partak, who aside from raising $26,000 to develop Alta Vista Charter’s healthy food program in Auburn and developing his own salad dressing line, was leaving for Chicago after Tuesday’s demonstration to be featured on the Steve Harvey Show.

“I’ll be talking about healthy foods for kids and also tasting some weird wacky foods,” Partak said.

But Partak didn’t leave without first outlining his dreams and aspirations to the Cottage Hill students, which included graduating from UCLA with a masters degree in acting, pursing his dream of owning a food truck — which combines his love for cooking with travel — and living in both San Francisco and New York.

Where do noodles come from?

Over at Union Hill School in Grass Valley, first graders were getting a similar glimpse into the life of a food preparer as Amy Cooke of Summer Thyme’s Bakery and Deli showed them how to make noodles and where they come from.

“Who knows where noodles come from? A noodle tree?” Cooke asked students in Mrs. Goforth’s class.

“A noodle bush?” one child responded, before Cooke showed them the eggs and flour that make the dough, which makes the noodles.

“Every noodle in the world is made by people,” Cooke said. “All of it was grown here, and then people just like you, picked the plant, gathered the egg, ground up the flour and now you get to eat it; and that’s how we get our food.”

Cooke, also a 22-year veteran of teaching, suggested she wanted to begin some kind of cooking demonstration that incorporates children and their parents.

“We’re disconnected from our food source; they don’t know how our food is made,” Cooke said. “Food is a wonderful teacher.”

Limov agreed with that sentiment, saying that families cooking and eating together is far too rare these days. “The missing link is to get parents involved.”

To contact Staff Writer Elias Funez, email or call 530-477-4230.

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