Updated: Jul 3, 2019
by Lindsay Adams. Lindsay is a masters student at Johns Hopkins University. This spring, she is completing a practicum project with Great Kids Farm.
Today, we’re featuring a very special person, Coach Donte Samuels, from Belmont Elementary. It was easy to see why students and faculty would be drawn to his personality; his enthusiasm for knowledge comes through clear and strong within minutes of starting our conversation. Coach has been at Belmont for 13 years and has played an integral role in the creation and management of Belmont’s school garden. His interest in nutrition, and how food impacts the body, started prior to his discovery that he had a heart condition. He describes how transitioning to a vegan diet taught him that what you eat impacts the way you feel – from your mood to your athletic performance, “it’s all connected,” he says. But Coach’s quest for improving health doesn’t end with himself. He is actively working to improve the health and lives of children and his clients through education, proper nutrition, and exercise.
One way in which he helps connect children to food is through Belmont’s school garden, which was built in the fall of 2018 through a partnership with OutTeach. Once this partnership was formed, Coach Donte and teacher Meg Gibson created The Green Club – an after-school gardening program that meets each Wednesday. The garden, surrounded by blooming trees and green grass, is situated on the side of the school and is equipped with wooden garden beds and a composting center. As we entered the garden, a young girl from across the street waves and says hello to Coach. Smiling from ear-to-ear he shouts, “I smell vegan chicken nuggets in the oven!” The student laughs and says, “That’s right!” Coach looks over to us: “That is spelled C-h-x-n by the way, it’s not real chicken,” and we start laughing, too.
As we make our way to colorfully painted tree stumps to have a seat, Coach begins telling us about the importance of school gardening programs and teachers like Ms. Gibson. “We can’t just talk to kids about food, and why they should eat it. We need to show background, foreground, and future – we need to show them how this food helps combat ailments. They might not all raise their hands when I ask them, ‘who wants to try some broccoli,’ but when I ask them, ‘who here wants to be strong?’ they get it, they all raise their hands.”
Whatever Coach is doing seems to be working. Belmont Elementary has been acknowledged by Healthier Generations and Kaiser Permanente as one of the healthiest schools in the country. Coach truly believes in the power of combining forces with teachers and cafeteria staff to teach children how food is grown and harvested, and to normalize healthy eating. He tells us, “Look -- kids want pizza, and they can have pizza, but let’s start serving pizza with a salad, let’s serve a glass of milk instead of coke… we’ve got to normalize this, we have to make eating these foods feel normal.”
Another way Coach encourages healthy eating is by getting kids excited and making connections. He told us about a visit to Great Kids Farm and said, “The kids were ecstatic because they saw food growing on the farm, and then I was able to take them back to the classroom and show them seeds. Then we went into the cafeteria with the cafeteria manager and showed them their food; they loved it…they really grasped the farm-to-school relationship after that initial visit.” And after our visit with Coach Donte, we really grasped just how important people like him are in making the future generations of Baltimore City healthier and happier. We thank you, Coach Donte and Ms. Gibson, for doing what you do so well!