Food is Elementary

By / Photography By Andrew Hyslop | May 01, 2010
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Kids smile while holding up a healthy food plate

Mary K. Korfhage has always enjoyed preparing healthful foods for her family, but as her children grew old enough to socialize away from home they were exposed to high-calorie, heavily processed treats nearly everywhere they went — and they wanted more.

“Just try and find a snack bar selling any healthy foods,” said Korfhage, a commercial video producer. “We’d be at games where kids are getting exercise, but they’re feeding them candy bars and nachos afterwards.”

Four years ago she attended an event centered on improving children’s diets by teaching them how to cook at school. When speaker Antonia Demas invited Korfhage’s children to help her cook a stew on stage, Korfhage thought, “I know they’ll like cooking it, but I doubt they’ll eat it.”

She was wrong. They liked it so much they pestered her to get the ingredients on the way home so they could cook it again. Demas, founder of the Food Studies Institute in Trumansburg, once again proved that children are more interested in food if they help prepare it.

“I knew then I wanted to do what she said about establishing a program in schools here,” said Korfhage, referring to the Food Is Elementary (FIE) program that’s the work of Demas’ institute. The curriculum, now in more than 2,000 schools nationwide, teaches children about their bodies and the nutrients they need for healthy growth, as well as how to choose those foods. Through regular classes they learn to prepare meals made from whole foods and, Korfhage hopes, teach their parents to do the same. “We call it a trickle up effect,” she says.

Today dozens of volunteers work in six area schools (five in Jefferson County, one in Bullitt) plus the Dare to Care Kids Café in Newburg, teaching and facilitating the program and raising all its funds. Firstyear costs for training and the purchase of kitchen equipment ranges between $1,000 and $1,500, and depending on the number of children receiving instruction, each program spends about another $1,000 per year on supplies. Area grocers such as Whole Foods, Valu Market and Kroger regularly donate food, and Shepherdsville shoe wholesaler Zappo’s helps fund FIE there.

Serena Hirn personally hustled up a $1,500 private donation to launch the program at Bloom Elementary in Louisville.

“As a coordinator [at Bloom], I do all the ordering, pick up the food and then do all the setup for the teachers, which takes five or six hours a week,” said Hirn. “It gets easier each year though as we get some experience.”

Not to mention encouragement. Hirn said Bloom’s principal was an instant supporter, its PTA also jumped on board and volunteers have been many and willing. “We’d love to have a few more volunteers, but we have been so lucky to have what we do,” Hirn said. The local goal is to raise enough funds to pay FIE teachers. “I’m really amazed at how many volunteers who don’t even have kids in the program are helping out anyway.” But do the kids like it?

Karen Meyer’s first child started off eating well, only to “get a taste for junk foods” as she aged. Against her will, Meyer sometimes gave in to her daughter’s demands “so she could at least eat something, even if it wasn’t the best,” but soon found her other children following suit.

Through FIE, she found a way to correct her children’s diets by eliminating “foods marketers tell you [are] healthy, but really aren’t,” such as heavily sugared cereal bars, yogurt and peanut butter. She replaced those with natural versions and substituted packaged snacks with fresh fruits, raw vegetables and homemade dips. Noble as her new cause was, however, it became a cause célèbre among her brood.

“My kids thought I’d gone crazy,” said Meyer, an FIE instructor at St. Raphael School in Louisville. “There was definitely a battle of the wills. They kept asking, ‘How long are we going to be on this diet?’ and I kept saying, ‘The rest of our lives.’ I wouldn’t give in, but they finally got used to it.”

When Meyer learned it takes an average 12 tastes of a particular food before a child may like it, she understood the process would take time at home and in class. After they’ve helped prepare a meal, students (typically grades 1–3) are encouraged, but never pushed, to try the new food. Some kids have an epiphany, while others’ palates need seasoning.

Most interesting, Meyer and Korfhage said, are stories about how children begin holding their parents to higher nutritional standards. One student turned down her mom’s offer for a visit to Krispy Kreme — instead requesting a trip to a salad bar. Others begin asking for meals prepared from scratch, which can be demanding for parents lacking cooking skills.

“This program does not promote perfection, but it does show we need to do a 180 from what we’re usually feeding our kids,” Korfhage said. As a part of each lesson, students receive easy-to-follow, one-pot meal recipes they can help prepare at home. “Kids already get plenty of protein, so we try to stress more fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains.”

During a lesson on Mexican food this spring, Meyer, Korfhage and Susan Bientz taught about two dozen St. Raphael students how to make soft tacos while discussing the nutritional and cultural significance of food in Mexico’s culture. Coco Tran, one of a handful of professional chefs in Louisville who have led FIE classes, taught students how to make spring rolls for a class on Vietnamese food. Tran, who emigrated here from Vietnam in the early ’70s, said children in her homeland are taught when very young to prepare meals.

“Children will eat whatever you give to them, so we need to teach them how to eat,” said Tran, owner of Zen Garden and Zen Tea House. “I have eaten hot dogs just twice in all my life because I know they’re bad for me. Parents also know what is in them, and yet they let their kids eat them! If everybody changed the way they ate because they thought about taking care of their children, it all would change, I think.”


  • It takes an average of 12 times before a child may like the taste of a particular food.
  • Encourage children to eat vegetables blended with foods they like. Karen Meyer wraps grapes and strawberries with spinach leaves to offset the veggie’s bitterness.
  • Kids are more amenable to trying new foods their peers already like.
  • Home is where the battle is: When eliminating junk food from the home, Meyer recommends going “cold turkey. They didn’t like it, but it took time and determination.”


According to a report prepared by Food Is Elementary, Louisvillians have much room to improve when it comes to healthful lifestyles:

  • 56.6% are overweight, 28.6% are obese
  • 78% do not eat five or more servings of fruits or vegetables a day
  • 35% engage in no leisure-time physical activity
  • 9% have been diagnosed with diabetes, compared to 6% nationally

Food Is Elementary founder Antonia Demas will be in Louisville this summer to train teachers, parents and volunteers how to take the curriculum into the classroom. The intensive two-day training includes not only the nutrition and cooking curriculum, but tips on working with the children and advice on working with schools.

For more information on Food Is Elementary Louisville, call Mary K. Korfage, 502-592-3293 or visit the Food Studies website

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