Eating seasonally has become a widespread trend in the restaurant world. For Noah Kopf, 16, a junior at Newton South High School, it was a serious lifestyle.
To raise awareness about local food systems Kopf conceived, and recently completed, “Homegrown 30: A month of backyard eating,” a challenge in which he ate only foods that he had produced or grown. He wanted members of the community to “base their diets on what’s in season.”
Kopf, a member of Newton South’s Farming Club, has been participating in similar activities for six years. His mother, Stephanie Cogen, brought him along to volunteer at Newton Community Farm, where the family got a Community Supported Agriculture share. He liked it enough to go on his own when possible. He spent a couple of summers in middle school at Farm & Wilderness camp in Vermont, and has worked at The Food Project, a program that employs young people on farms in Eastern Massachusetts to educate them about sustainability.
The Farming Club manages the 3,000-square-foot farm on the school’s campus in conjunction with the Newton South Sustainable Agriculture Program. At the start of the 2014-15 school year, Kopf pitched his challenge to program adviser Jon Orren. Kopf initially considered whether or not the school farm could feed him for a year. “I quickly decided the answer was no,” he says. “It could feed me for a month.”
He settled on 30 days this summer. Last fall, he presented a crop plan to Orren, to the sustainable agriculture class, and to members of the Farming Club, asking to use the food they would grow for his project. They willingly agreed.
Orren recalls that as soon as Kopf got involved with the club his freshman year, he “immediately took on a leadership role. It was clear he had a really strong interest.”
The young agriculturalist considered which crops would provide him the necessary nutrients to maintain a balanced diet, and “which crops would provide the most food-per-square-foot with the least effort.” He pickled those that grew early in the year and stored them for the following summer.
After nearly a year of planning, Kopf began on Aug. 23, adding food from his family’s garden to school farm food. He foraged for berries, kept chickens for eggs, harvested sea salt from Cape Cod Bay, and grew chile peppers, dried them, and ground them for pepper. Kopf notes that his “biggest culinary achievement” was growing two peanut plants, yielding a grand total of 10 peanuts, which he ground with salt into peanut butter, paired with jelly from cooked-down berries, and sandwiched between a homemade “cracker” of egg yolk, sea salt, and potato starch from homegrown potatoes.
Another major feat was gnocchi from strained and dried potato “mush” that Kopf mixed with eggs and served with fresh tomatoes and garlic. At the beginning, 70 to 80 percent of his calories were coming from potatoes. He found creative ways to prepare them. He sliced them thinly and baked them at high heat with no fat, and created crisps; and with shredded potatoes in a skillet he developed a potato pancake and mashed potato hybrid with a crisp exterior and smooth interior.
The challenge concluded on Sept. 22. On his Facebook page, he talked about the things he wished he had grown or had more of (beets, winter squash, soybeans, corn), and what helped him (potatoes, beans, kale). He managed to feel full more often than not, but there were other hurdles. “I tried to avoid eating with my family when their dinner looked really good — especially pasta,” he says. “If my friends were eating out, I would try to bring some potatoes, or wait until later.”
His family did not eat his creations, but were encouraging. “Noah was always well-armed with research to reassure us that his project was responsible,” says his mother. It was still hard for the family. “We were certainly happy when it was over,” she says, “and our family could enjoy dinner together, enjoying the same food.”
Ultimately the 30-day endeavor was successful. Creating unlikely dishes with a limited set of ingredients forced Kopf to get creative, and reminded him that he truly enjoys cooking. Afterward, he had a colossal meal of nachos, ice cream, pizza, pie, and more.
Kopf is back in the garden, with hopes of doing what he calls “something with farming, but not a farmer.” His voice may crop up in the future on the subject of sustainability.
But give him time. He’s only halfway through high school.
Bethany Graber can be reached at email@example.com.