JOLIET – Children from the Warren Sharpe Community Center were celebrities for the night.
In between bites of burgers, pizza and wings at Heroes West Sports Grill in Joliet, more than a dozen kids from the youth center spent their Monday night signing autographs for fans.
They were celebrating the nonprofit’s launch of a new book – “Veggie Casserole: Kids Cook the Darndest Things!”–inspired by the creation of the children’s urban garden.
Michael Bew, whose grandson, Malachi Bew, 8, goes to the center, said three generations of family members have attended Warren Sharpe. He’s proud of the children’s accomplishments with the garden.
“I love it. It takes away what would normally be an eyesore in the neighborhood,” Michael Bew said. “When you make something as beautiful as a garden, people respect it.”
‘A great lesson’
The 80-page book is quite the page-turner, filled with vegetable-centered recipes tested out in the center’s kitchen since the community garden broke ground in 2014 on city-donated land.
It also commemorates the children’s visit last year to the White House in Washington, D.C. Letters to First Lady Michelle Obama also are featured.
Dick Bennett, one of the center’s co-founders and former pastor at Sacred Catholic Heart Church in Joliet, was happy to get a copy of the book signed.
“It’s really a great idea considering the whole issue of natural food, organic food these days, especially in a community that normally doesn’t ever get organic food because of the food deserts,” Bennett said. “It’s a great lesson for the kids because they see things grow.”
The city’s South Side neighborhood is a federally designated “food desert” – or a low-income urban neighborhood where most residents do not have convenient and easy access to fresh, healthy and affordable food.
Between 600 to 800 families are serviced through the center’s food pantry on a monthly basis, while between 200 and 300 hot meals are served up each week during after-school and summer programs.
Now thanks to the garden, the Warren Sharpe children incorporate healthy items into lunches every day.
Julian Shelby, 9, of Joliet, said his favorite vegetable to eat at the center is “salad with different kinds of ranch.”
“I love carrots, too,” he said.
Plans to expand
The garden was largely inspired by Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” campaign, for which the first lady started her own community garden in 2009 to help spark a conversation about nutrition and healthy living to fight the nation’s obesity epidemic.
Kay Bolden, the center’s executive director, said the recipes are all budget-friendly.
There are plans to expand the garden yet again this summer, she said. The center will go from three to five lots, and ComEd engineers will be in town April 30 to construct a permanent greenhouse on the property to house micro-greens.
The children also get their own booth this year selling produce at the Joliet Junior College’s Farmers Market, which starts in May, Bolden said.
All book proceeds will go toward supporting the youth center and ever-growing garden projects.
As part of the restaurant’s “Heroes Helps” night, 10 percent of all purchases made at Heroes West on Monday will be donated to the center.
“Veggie Casserole: Kids Cook the Darndest Things!” is available at www.VeggieCasserole.org