When Melissa Graham decided to leave her job as an attorney in Chicago, she didn’t intend to become an advocate for school food.
Rather, Graham left to start a catering company that specialized in organic and sustainable dishes. On the side, the chef also launched a nonprofit organization called Purple Asparagus, seeing it as a way to volunteer to educate people about healthy eating.
Only Graham’s little volunteer effort took off. And since there were more catering companies in Chicago than nonprofits dedicated to teaching kids about nutritious food, Graham decided to dedicate herself to Purple Asparagus full-time.
Graham is now the “head spear” at Purple Asparagus, guiding the organization as it teaches children and the community about the benefits of preparing and eating food that is good for their bodies — and gives kids the chance to taste out a few healthy treats. The nonprofit’s “Delicious Nutritious Adventures,” for example, is a curriculum-based, in-class program that shows students how to make healthy snacks and meals, including fruits and vegetables.
“It’s not about saying, ‘This is healthy food and you should eat it,’” Graham says. “There’s definitely a place for that but that’s not who we are. We’re about telling the story of food.”
Purple Asparagus has conducted educational programming at community centers and farmers markets, but primarily works with schools. Graham says she and her all-volunteer team aim to make their visits to Chicago classrooms fun as well as educational.
Purple Asparagus stops by each classroom on a monthly basis, and usually focuses on a specific fruit or vegetable that is in season and locally sourced. Along with allowing students to taste the food, team members also have students to sniff and even feel the texture of the food, so the kids begin to think about food in new ways.
Most students usually are willing to try the various fruits and veggies, Graham says, adding that there’s always kids who’ll eat anything, then always kids who won’t eat anything. The key is reaching out to the students in the middle, so they can begin to find fruits and vegetables they enjoy eating.
“We won’t want 100 percent of the kids to say, ‘I love everything,’” Graham explains. “If 100 percent of the kids say that, we’re not doing our job.’”
One of Graham’s favorite moments came with a young girl who didn’t like any of the healthy offerings Purple Asparagus brought. But during one lesson plan, Graham had the students create black bean banana mash — and that seemed to strike a nerve with the student.
“It was the best compliment I received all year,” Graham recalls. “She said, ‘You know what? That’s not bad.’ We’ve had lots of that. It’s building the trust with the kids.”
Purple Asparagus has struck a nerve among childhood obesity advocates as well. Celebrity chef Rachel Ray featured the nonprofit on the “How Cool is That?” section of her Yum-O! website, and Graham was among the chefs invited to the White House in 2010 to help kickoff First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign.
And the nonprofit continues to aim to expand its work across Chicago — interest is so great that the organization cannot work with all the schools that want to take part in its educational programming. Graham says Purple Asparagus hopes to work with community partners to expand its work.
“We’ve never looked at ourselves as being in a vacuum,” she says. “Our program is just one answer to a big huge problem.”
Don’t miss the rest of the Inside Track! Click here to find out how the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program is helping schools across the country. Plus: Don’t miss the news about a big victory for student health in Seattle, and get the details on a webinar looking at advocacy opportunities following the Weight of the Nation documentary.