DUBUQUE, Iowa — As the school day ended recently at Lincoln Elementary School, the first-graders in Kristin Buelow’s classroom had boxes full of unknown goodies to open.
“Ooh, yes! Berries!” Jahari White squealed.
Alongside the berries were bell peppers and meat sticks — enjoyed especially by Jahari’s tablemate Holden Ashbrook — other vegetables, pretzels, honey sticks and jam.
Across the table, classmate Rhiannon Hanson skewered her berries on a stick.
“I made a kebab,” she said.
The “jar-cuterie” lesson, a twist on charcuterie boards, and the foods sourced primarily from local farmers and producers were courtesy of Project Rooted, a nonprofit aimed at connecting kids to healthy, local foods.
After reading the class a book about a neighborhood coming together for a meal, Buelow instructed the students to look through their boxes and to sprinkle the contents into cups as they pleased.
“They’re really using their creativity,” Project Rooted founder Whitney Sanger told the Dubuque Telegraph Herald. “We’re trying to make it fun for them. We’re celebrating gathering and foods that you gather around the table with.”
“I’m going to share with everybody,” Jahari promised as he packed up the snacks he didn’t eat immediately.
Holden made a similar vow, explaining that he was going to share with his parents and brother at home.
“I’m taking it home so that everyone can taste everything and the stuff I don’t like, they can eat,” Holden said.
The “Rooted Boxes” will return monthly to the classrooms of Buelow and nine other Dubuque Community Schools first-grade teachers, each time filled with new foods paired with a fresh activity.
“It is very nice to expose them to the things inside the box, those healthy foods,” Buelow said. “Oftentimes, they cost the most, so that might be cut out of the lives of kids.”
The program launched this month in 10 first-grade classrooms at nine Dubuque public schools — Audubon, Bryant, Fulton, Kennedy, Lincoln, Marshall, Prescott, Sageville and Table Mound elementary schools.
This isn’t the first time that Project Rooted has sent boxes into a classroom, but it is the first time the project was attempted on such a large scale. Last year, the organization tested out the project with 25 students.
Sanger said the group is working on plans to include Western Dubuque Community School District classrooms in the future.
“We really want kids to have fun and explore food, but to also realize where you can source foods,” Sanger said. “We have so many amazing local producers and farmers in the community. We want them to be aware of those opportunities.”
Each of the 220 boxes that Project Rooted prepared for the students included foods from Hilltop Gardens, Phelps Farm, Our Farm Meats, W.W. Homestead Dairy, Barb’s Garden Pantry, Johnson Honey Farm and Timber Range Farm.
“Every month is really different,” Sanger said. “We try to use food that is in season.”
In the coming months, the boxes will feature local yogurt, a herb-planting activity and, eventually, a project during which the students will use the herbs they planted.
Students on Thursday also took home a “Rooted Journal” handout with a chickpea parsley soup recipe and a list of seasonal fruits and vegetables, a small activity booklet and a bamboo utensil that they can use to recreate their “jarcuteries.”
“The goal is to ultimately bring it back,” Sanger said. “That’s why we have them bring a utensil back home so they can create it again. Every month is a different utensil.”
On Wednesday, volunteers met at Steeple Square to make and fill the boxes. Among the youngest helpers was a group of students from Audubon Elementary School.
The fourth- and fifth-graders are a part of the school’s student leadership team.
“This looks delicious,” fifth-grader Sadhana Rawal said as she plopped colorful jam samples into each box.
Audubon school connections liaison Brenda Roschen said the team came out to help fill the boxes for their younger classmates across the district to support Project Rooted.
Project Rooted has partnered with the schools in the past with an online cooking class during the pandemic and another program in which students were given the opportunity to try foods bought at the Dubuque Farmers Market.
“This feels good for our students to give back because they (Project Rooted) have given us so much,” Roschen said.