Aeron Illige, 7, and his sister, Annaka Illige, 4, are old hats when it comes to helping out in the kitchen.
"They started cutting mushrooms with a butter knife when they were 2," said their mom, Tucsonan Pam Lambert.
Lambert regularly takes the kids to Tucson Village Farm, 4210 N. Campbell Ave., to work in the garden and learn more about food that comes from the ground.
The family spent a recent morning at the farm, discovering facts about bees, digging in the soil, planting seeds and learning to make salad dressing from olive oil, a squeeze of lemon, a drizzle of honey and a dash of salt and pepper.
Showing the children where their food comes from was Amy Plopper, instructional specialist with the Pima County Cooperative Extension - a program of the University of Arizona College of Agriculture and Life Sciences - which operates the farm.
"Who can tell me what four things a seed needs to grow into a plant?" Plopper asked the children as they planted sunflower seeds among rows of tomatillo plants.
Little ones shouted out the answers: water, soil, sunshine and air.
"We also say a fifth thing - love," Plopper said. "We're going to give our seeds lots of love."
Tucson Village Farm, which turned a barren lot into a cheery, kid-friendly farm and outdoor classroom in 2010, draws children from throughout Southern Arizona, serving 7,060 youths last year.
"We are a seed-to-table program and we teach kids ages toddler through college to grow and prepare healthy foods," said Elizabeth Sparks, Arizona 4-H Youth Development assistant agent for the Pima County Cooperative Extension.
Teens are also taught to be healthy living advocates.
"Everyone who comes here does farm chores - dig something, plant something, harvest something, taste something," she added.
The program, which receives no state funding with the exception of Sparks' salary, also contributes to Tucson's food system.
"When we first started, our intention was that all of the food we produced would go into the mouths of the kids who came to the farm," Sparks said.
The farm has such an abundance of produce, extra is sold at the farm's U-Pick, although that is on hiatus as the farm transitions from winter to summer crops. It is also sold on consignment at the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona, to help defray program costs.
"So many kids haven't seen or tasted food in its natural state," Sparks said. "Tasting a fresh carrot out of the ground is very different from tasting one out of those little cellophane baggies you get at the store.
"We target low-income, at-risk youth but really all kids need this," she added. "We have to make a change in the way we eat."
This winter, children were given seeds and plastic pots to grow lettuce at home.
"They grew enough lettuce for their family for winter, and kids were making the salads," Sparks said.
If a child takes part in growing food, it is more likely that he or she will develop a lifelong love of fruits and veggies, Sparks said.
"There is a disconnect between people and their food," she said. "There is also a myth that it is more expensive to eat healthfully. We teach easy ways to eat more healthfully."
Tucson mom Brianna Tenuta and her daughter, Aria, 4, munched on salad in the shade of the outdoor classroom after learning to make a simple salad dressing.
At an earlier class, Aria snacked on a mix of sliced apples and beets. The next day at the grocery store, Aria spotted beets - not a typical favorite snack for a 4-year-old. "Those are beets," she cried out to her mom. "I love beets."
Tenuta's son Grayson, 7, is taking part in the program's Farm Camp this summer.
"It's nice for them to see what real food is," she said.
The Best Zucchini Bread by Farm Chef Becky
Makes: 2 loaves
• 3 cups all-purpose flour
• 1 teaspoon salt
• 1 teaspoon baking soda
• 1 teaspoon baking powder
• 3 teaspoons ground cinnamon
• 3 eggs
• 1 cup vegetable oil
• 2 1/4 cups white sugar
• 3 teaspoons vanilla extract
• 2 cups grated zucchini
• 1 cup chopped walnuts
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Grease and flour two standard loaf pans.
Sift flour, salt, baking powder, baking soda and cinnamon together in a bowl. Beat eggs, oil, vanilla and sugar together in a large bowl. Add sifted ingredients to the creamed mixture, and beat well. Stir in zucchini and nuts until well combined.
Pour batter into prepared pans. Bake for 40 to 60 minutes, or until toothpick or butter knife inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool in pans on rack for 20 minutes. Remove bread from pans and cool completely.
Makes: 3 cups
• 1/4 cup walnuts
• 1/4 cup pine nuts or sunflower seeds
• 3 tablespoons chopped garlic (9 cloves)
• 5 cups fresh basil leaves, packed
• 1 teaspoon kosher salt
• 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
• 1 1/2 cups high-quality olive oil
• 1 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
Place walnuts, pine nuts and garlic in the bowl of a food processor fitted with a steel blade and process for 15 seconds. Add basil leaves, salt and pepper. With the processor running, slowly pour the olive oil into the bowl through the feed tube and process until the pesto is thoroughly pureed. Add parmesan and puree for one minute.
Use immediately or store in the refrigerator or freezer in a covered container, with a thin film of olive oil on top.
Notes: Air is the enemy of pesto. For freezing, pack it in containers with a film of oil or plastic wrap directly on top with the air pressed out.
To clean basil, remove the leaves, swirl them in a bowl of water, then spin them until very dry in a salad spinner. Store them in a closed plastic bag with a slightly damp paper towel. As long as the leaves are dry, they will stay green for several days.
• 1 whole summer squash, such as yellow squash or zucchini
• 4 tablespoons marinara sauce or 2 tablespoons pesto (or more or less, to your taste)
• 1/2 cup mozzarella cheese
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Cut squash in half lengthwise. Remove seeds with a spoon, leaving ends untouched. Fill inside of each half of the hollowed-out squash with half the marinara or pesto and cover each half of the squash with 1/4 cup mozzarella. Wrap in aluminum foil and bake for 20 minutes or until squash is tender and cheese is melted.
Recipes courtesy of Tucson Village Farm.
Find out more
For more information about the Tucson Village Farm go to tucsonvillagefarm.org or call 626-5161.
Email Tucson freelance writer Gabrielle Fimbres at firstname.lastname@example.org.