Written by Katie Rainwater, FoodCorps North Carolina service member with Cherokee Choices and Cherokee Public Schools. Cherokee, North Carolina is the ancestral home of the Easter Band of Cherokee Indians. FoodCorps is a nationwide team of AmeriCorps leaders who connect kids to real food and help them grow up healthy.
“Bear! Deer! …Trout!”
These were the answers I got when I asked a table of boys at Cherokee Central Schools what foods they would like to see on their lunch trays.
A few months into the fall semester, my fellow FoodCorps service members and I conducted an informal survey of our middle school. At this point we had already hosted a handful of taste tests in the district’s three school cafeterias covering Pre-K through grade 12 to answer big questions, such as “Exactly how many pumpkin-hummus samples can you eat before you pop?” and many other mysteries that the fall harvest presents.
Our intention with these conversations was partially to gauge the impact of the taste tests, but also to find out how we could make school lunch better for the students. What did they want? The students at the first table I sat down with suggested wild game meats—a suggestion that was echoed by many others. They wanted what they saw at home: food that reflects themselves, their families, and their culture.
Service member, Katie prepares for a taste test.
I realized then, it can be easy to get caught up in the glamour of fruits and vegetables in this line of service—the carrot is the FoodCorps mascot, after all. We cook, teach, grow, and share a rainbow of garden goodness with our students, yet we manage to overlook the meat of the matter. How do we get fresh, local, sustainable meat that reflects the community we serve into our schools?
In Cherokee, North Carolina, this poses its own set of special challenges. Nestled in the rolling, clustered mountains of Western, NC and butted up against Great Smokies National Park, space is less available than in the lowlands of the state. Livestock is rare, and farming is often on a scale that’s just large enough to serve a family. What Cherokee has plenty of, however, and what has helped the people here flourish for centuries, are the rivers carrying fresh, cold-water-loving fish.
Service members introduce healthy, local foods into the cafeteria.
With the support of our school nutrition director and our community network savvy farm to school coordinator, we were able to find a trout farm located just up the road from the school. In mid-winter, we took a trip to the farm to see their operation and discuss the possibility of them supplying trout to the schools. The couple tending the farm was enthusiastic about the opportunity. As an added bonus, they were just as excited to share all their fantastic, time-tested trout recipes as well.
In the spring, the farm generously donated enough trout for a taste test at our middle school of about 250 students. It seemed fitting, as these students were the original inspiration for the effort.
Taking a note from our trout farmers, we opted to try their Trout Cake recipe (see recipe below), which they sang the praises of more than once from atop their chilly mountain plot.
The day of the taste test, we set up just inside the entrance to the middle school cafeteria. A table, red tablecloth and homemade posters proudly proclaimed, “U’ga’(Trout!) Enjoy your very own Cherokee, NC Raised Trout!”
A sign encourages students to taste test local trout.
As with most things involving kids and food, we had a couple of learning moments, also known as hiccups. Because we had such a large order to fill, we needed to pre-cook our trout cakes and keep them warmed in the oven. Unfortunately, this caused some of them to become a bit dry. Fortunately, it was nothing that an emergency sauce concoction couldn’t solve! By the second lunch rotation we had a smooth operation of excited taste-testers. What was most beautiful, though, was the difference in the way the students reacted when they understood that this food was from here, like them.
It was a learning experience for more than the students who surprised themselves by trying (and liking!) the trout that day. The results wiped away the initial skepticism parents had about their kids trying (much less liking!) trout. We were all offered a lesson in the power of trying new things (See more things the FoodCorps programs are trying to get kids healthy at #trythings on Twitter).
Cherokee, North Carolina is in its second year as a FoodCorps site, and we are endlessly thrilled about the future of food here.
Trout Cake Recipe
- 15 oz. trout, baked and flaked
- 1 ½ cup soft whole wheat bread crumbs
- ½ cup finely chopped sweet red pepper
- 2 eggs
- 3 green onions, thinly sliced
- ¼ cup minced cilantro
- 3 Tbsp. Greek yogurt
- 1 Tbsp. lemon juice
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- Salt and pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Mix all ingredients until well combined. Form into disk shaped patties and place on a baking sheet with parchment paper or lightly greased. Bake for 10 to 15 minutes, or until slightly golden on edges. Enjoy!
Organic Valley is committed to promoting environmental sustainability and food education. We are proud to support FoodCorps in its work to educate children and school districts about good food choices and in their efforts to be good stewards of the land.