"It's like doing Play-Doh!" 7 year old Yasu Thapa said to her friends, as they rubbed their hands with sanitizer before preparing food, straight from their school garden to the lunchroom.
McKinley Elementary School, part of the Davenport Community School District, has for six years hosted a garden-to-table program with the help of Chef Robert Lewis, the Happy Diabetic Chef and chief training chef at Happy Joe's Pizza.
Lewis, who on Friday was helped by Chef Richard Abel of the Rhythm City Casino in Davenport, presided as 66 second-graders, parent volunteers, teachers, and the school's principal, Aaron Vincent, all combined to make ratatouille.
Yes, the fresh vegetable dish has the same name as a popular movie, which gives it cache among the younger set.
"We used to do salsa, but this is more popular," Vincent said.
McKinley was one of the first schools in Davenport to establish a garden, and Amy Wine is now in charge of the garden-to-table activity. Wine, of Davenport, has children in the school and is also a social worker at North High School.
This activity actually started on Earth Day in April. At that time, the children picked out veggies they would like to plant, from a list prepared by Wine. A "Veggie Vote" was held to choose among varieties of carrots, squash, eggplant and zucchini.
Students from all grades planted the vegetables in the school gardens, and Wine organized teams of parent volunteers to weed and water over the summer months. In September, the garden was harvested by second-graders.
Students gathered at tables in the lunchroom, filled with different vegetables. Each station included cutting boards, knives, graters and peelers, donated by parents for this project.
The chefs supplied a cooking station, pans, and ingredients like olive oil and tomato sauce.
"You'll slice, and cut and prepare all the vegetables," Lewis told the students.
Parent volunteers were ready to help. Lisa Cox, who has a daughter in second grade, worked with carrots. "When you guys get done with your carrot, I want it to look like this," she said, holding up a peeled example.
Lewis, who is in his sixth year of helping at the event, suggested it is about the children, and learning how to eat healthy, cook healthy and have fun in the process.
It helps that the dish, ratatouille, is connected with a popular movie, Lewis said. But the real backbone to the program is support of parents, teachers and the principal.
Abel, his assistant, said it was an honor to work in the activity, and that he found it fun, too.
Lewis and Abel ran the cooking station; children brought them pans full of prepared veggies, while the chefs were aided by a few of the students who got to wear tall chef's hats.
After sauteing the produce quickly in olive oil, Lewis concocted the ratatouille with sauce and seasonings, and the second-graders took a seat to actually eat the dish.
"Boys and girls, you did an amazing job," Lewis told the group. He ran through a list of what is in the ratatouille, including zucchini, peppers, onions, eggplant, cucumber, tomato sauce, garlic and oregano.
While some children turned up their noses at the finished product, most seemed to enjoy it. "It was really, really good," said Reece Moeller, 7, one of those who helped the chefs and had a tall white hat to prove it.