How This McCormick Chef is Inspiring Students through Hands-on Education
For the past 13 years, Len King, Senior Research Chef at McCormick, has been standing for the future of flavor every day at work. His responsibilities include developing new products, acting as a resource for clients whose own chefs are creating new flavors, and training sales staff, employees, and brokers on how to best market McCormick's products. As part of the Research & Development arm of McCormick, Len is on the cusp of what the next big flavors in food will be. "It's a lot of trial and error, which can be challenging, but it's a lot of fun, too," he shared. In his spare time, Len is committed to giving back to his community.
Growing up in rural Connecticut, Len has always understood where vegetables and produce come from. In fact, most of the fresh food his family consumed was grown on their own property. He picked peaches off trees, tomatoes off vines, and carrots off their roots. And the thought of not having fresh vegetables and produce readily available never even crossed his mind. But after decades of working in the food industry, he knows that is not the case for everyone. As a volunteer and Board member of Friends of Great Kids Farm, Inc., Len witnesses first-hand the excitement of young people discovering food and where it comes from for the very first time.
Friends of Great Kids Farm is a nonprofit that supports, promotes, and enhances the programming in Baltimore City Public Schools. It uses a 33-acre urban farm in Catonsville, Maryland, to provide hands-on opportunities for students to connect farm and plate, strengthen environmental literacy, and promote healthy habits. With 25 percent of children in Baltimore City not having access to nutritious food, time on the farm experiencing up close how produce is grown and harvested is invaluable. "Even the students who are hesitant at first open up once they get here. They enjoy interacting with livestock and love the freedom of exploring the open fields, running streams, and adventurous woods that the farm offers," said Len.
On the farm, students learn about nutrition and healthy eating in a tangible way, in a hands-on environment. They see, touch, smell, and taste everything being grown and prepare it for cooking. Len has learned the more involved children are in preparing a meal, the more inclined they are to eat it (a great way to introduce nutritious food to young people). The farm also has greenhouses, where students learn to grow mushrooms, herbs, spices, and microgreens. It isn't unusual to hear sounds of excitement as students make their first kale salad with their own hands. Len specifically recalls the "Aha" moment of a young boy as he pulled a potato out of the ground. He later admitted, that until that moment, he believed potatoes grew in the shape of French fries.
"We have also incorporated the work at the farm into McCormick's Flavor for Life™ initiative by giving cooking demonstrations at schools and in the community, and by creating cooking videos that showcase nutritious recipes," Len said. Flavor for Life™, McCormick's signature charitable giving program aims to teach children, families, and individuals how to reduce their salt, fat, and sugar intakes while boosting flavor through the use of spices and herbs. It was established to help people who need support in making healthier food choices create new ways to affect positive change in their lives.
Len first got involved with the farm through the American Culinary Federation of Baltimore. Together with other local chefs, he partnered with William Paca Elementary School to teach students farming, cooking, and nutrition. He used six raised bed gardens of tomatoes, melons, and potatoes as his classroom tools and had students farm them. Along the way, they discussed what they were growing, how it all fit into the healthy eating color wheel, and how they could eat more wholesome at home. Everything grown was donated to the school and Len taught the school lunch staff how to use seasoning and spices in even the simplest dishes. Today, they box up ingredients from the farm and make them available to anyone who needs them.
In his role on the Board, Len helps raise awareness of how the farm benefits Baltimore City students. He uses fundraising events like farm-to-table dinners and culinary competitions to spread the word. He highlights how the program teaches students about nutrition, how to connect with and preserve their natural environment, and how to experience the joy of learning in a peaceful setting. He talks about distributing produce, developing curriculum, and giving educational materials to teachers, allowing them to replicate farm experiences in their classrooms. Len also educates students on preventative health, like using food to ward off illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease. Since its inception in 2011, more than $1 million has been raised, resulting in the purchase of a work truck, and funding for the farm to operate.
For Len, one of the most enjoyable parts of working with Friends of Great Kids Farm is the opportunity to assist students at the start of their careers. In fact, his work on the farm has inspired him to establish a Food Fellows program, an internship program for students to discover firsthand what R&D chefs do at McCormick. "I reach out to those who show a passion for food – who may want to become culinary chefs, or botanists, or work in research and development and encourage them to volunteer at the farm, where they will get exposure to the many aspects of food production. I help high school students apply for summer internship programs at the farm, so they can gain practical experience and can be mentored by tenured professionals. And finally, through partnerships we have with culinary programs at technical schools, and with local restaurants, I help give students a head-start on their career in the food industry. After all, the future of flavor depends on them," Len stated. His unwavering commitment to standing with the Baltimore City public school community echoes McCormick's own pledge to give back where we live, work, and source.