Grad student captivates kids with healthy food choice


By Cathy McKenzie, WSU Mount Vernon

MOUNT VERNON, Wash. – With more children suffering from diet-related health problems – and many depending on free or reduced-price school-lunch programs – lessons that make nutritious foods served at school interesting and attractive are in demand.

WSU Mount Vernon graduate student Kelly Ann Atterberry, wearing jewelry she designed with dry beans, describes the properties of the soldier bean, named for its markings resembling a toy soldier. (Photo by Kim Binczewski)

May is Dry Bean Month in the Whatcom Farm-to-School program, and a Washington State University Mount Vernon graduate student is giving several fourth-grade classes a taste of what that colorful, healthful crop is all about.

“Dry beans are wonderful because they are a vegetable and a source of protein,” said Kelly Ann Atterberry, who is in her second year of her master’s project at WSU Mount Vernon. “Bean seeds come in a rainbow of colors, which are not only beautiful to look at but provide various phytonutrients.”

Program unique in U.S.

Students from Roosevelt Elementary School in Bellingham last spring plant their school garden with the Rockwell bean, an heirloom from Whidbey Island dating back to 1880. (Photo by Laura Play)

As part of her M.S. thesis, Atterberry has developed a garden and nutrition education project for K-12 students that promotes consumption of pulse crops. Part of the legume family – plants with seeds enclosed in a pod – pulses include dried peas, edible beans, lentils and chickpeas.

According to her faculty advisor, Carol Miles, the WSU Mount Vernon school garden curriculum is the only one in the United States that focuses on pulses.

“Utilizing dry beans in a school garden-based education program provides a unique opportunity to focus on improving the health of our school children, many of whom are suffering from diet-related conditions such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease,” Miles said.

“The challenge,” she said, “is to get kids to eat what’s good for them.”

Science and nutrition made fun

To meet the challenge, Atterberry is working with classes at Kendall Elementary School, where 98.9 percent of students receive free or reduced-price meals, and Mount Erie Elementary School in Anacortes, where 30.4 percent of the students receive free or reduced-price meals. In her first year, she worked with students in Ferndale and Bellingham.

“Our curriculum combines nutrition education with math and biology activities that get the students excited about trying something new outside the traditional classroom setting,” she said.

Atterberry is starting with three lessons geared to the summer dry-bean planting season May 15-June 1. Students will plant and observe the bean seeds; calculate the percentage of germinated seeds; and learn about nutrition while measuring and graphing plant height in the school garden.

The lessons will be supplemented with recipes including a Midnight Black Bean Cake that got an A-plus from faculty, staff and student taste-testers; a WSU Extension fact sheet geared to parents and teachers, “Growing Dry Beans in Home Gardens;” and a cooking video.

Family and familiarity

“What’s great about the pulse cooking demonstration video ( is that the kids can use it at home and get their parents involved,” Atterberry said.

“The more times the students are introduced to a new food, and the more familiar they become with it, the more likely they are to try it when it’s offered to them through the school lunch program,” she said.

“Our goal by fall is to have 10 classrooms working on the next phase: harvesting and threshing,” she said. “What’s really important is that we’re getting the word out that beans are really nutritious – and they taste good.”

More information about the WSU Mount Vernon School Garden-Based Education Program and links to the pulse recipes, cooking demo and WSU Extension fact sheet are available at Whatcom Farm-to-School information is available at


Carol Miles, WSU Mount Vernon vegetable horticulture program leader, 360-848-6150, cell 360-610-0942,
Kelly Ann Atterberry, WSU Mount Vernon graduate student, cell 206-819-9844,