Up and out well before dawn, our team of CulinaryCorps chefs pulled into the Ceiba airport just as the sun’s first rays hit the tarmac. A twelve-minute plane ride later and we stepped out onto the lush tropical island of Vieques.
The first cargo off the plane? Bags and bags of fresh vegetables.
Our CulinaryCorps volunteer work for the day was focused on Todos Los Santos Community Center, an education enrichment environment for two- to five-year-olds living on the island. The Center is run by a group of inspiring women and is sponsored by VIDAS, a non-profit organization devoted to the welfare of underserved children suffering from hunger, illness, and abuse.
The big annual project for each VIDAS Center is a handcrafted “food portfolio” that the children themselves help create. Last year, the theme was beans; this year, it’s vegetables. The students and teachers work year-round to compile recipes, art projects, drawings, and stories, each judged by a panel of local culinary experts. Our day with the group was the kick-off for their vegetable exploration.
The CulinaryCorps chefs broke into three teams, each tackling a different recipe that expounded on our day’s theme “Saboreando el Arcoiris” (Savor the Rainbow). Our three menu items for the day:
- Rainbow Veggie Wraps
- Pot-of-Gold Salad with Shake-It Dressing
- Carrot Cake Smoothie and Green Goddess Juice
With all the fruits and vegetables displayed and labeled, the stations became as colorful as the rainbows that often grace this beautiful island. And soon enough, the smallest cooks CulinaryCorps chefs have ever work with arrived, many with their parents and siblings.
From the time they walked through the door, it was a vegetable whirlwind!
Each station was twenty minutes long, with students rotating on to the next station to make every dish. Tasting the veggies on hand was an important part of the lesson, and we encouraged all the students to become part of our “one bite club.” If they did choose to nibble on something new, they earned a sticker for their chef hat and a round of high fives and applause.
Given the lack of affordable access to many fresh vegetables on Vieques, we weren’t sure how many students would be tempted to take a bite of beet or sweet potato, or take a a sip of celery juice and carrot puree. Happily, we were blown away by their willingness to try almost everything we set before them! And it was not beginner’s luck, as session after session over 75 students and parents in total explored every vegetable with gusto (admittedly, with the occasional and polite spit-up).
As we were in the midst of our last session, washing dishes with cafeteria cook Carmen, she said that she had never seen the students eat what they were eating today—and that she would know, as she urges them to eat their vegetables every day. With a sly smile, she said that today she could feel that things were about to change for the better.
In all, a true testament to the difference that one cargo load of vegetables—and twelve sticker-happy chefs—can make.