The public at large is becoming wise to the fact that eating healthy should begin early, and local organic farmer Gabriele Marewski of Paradise Farms seems to be on to this concept with her oyster mushroom project.
Last February Marewski was awarded a $49,500 USDA Value-Added Producer Grant to help small farmers develop new products and expand market opportunities. Paradise Farms was the only Florida recipient of this grant. So what is she doing with it? Growing oyster mushroom snacks for Miami-Dade public schools.
Grants like this are only awarded to farmers whose projects are determined to be "economically viable and sustainable".
With the money, Marewski hopes to combat diet-related diseases in children such as obesity and diabetes by replacing unhealthy, conventional school vending machine snacks with healthier alternatives, such as oyster mushroom chips.
Coined as "jump food" (a play of words from junk food), and alluding to energy to jump start activity, the idea was partly inspired by the lack of healthy food choices in public schools and partly from her sister Maria.
Why oyster mushrooms? For several reasons: one, oyster mushrooms -- or Pleurotus -- are one of the few edible mushroom species that can grow in sub-tropical climates; two, they can be easily dried into chips which are flavored; and three, they are highly nutritious, packing a protein content between 15 and 20 percent, as well as antioxidants and loaded with vitamins and minerals.
Marewski is in full swing of the operation, dedicating at least one entire building to the operation, complete with a room to mix the substrate, a dark room and fruiting chamber. Soon, she will also use a modified greenhouse too. The grant allows her up to 2,000 pounds of oyster mushroom production per year.
The biggest challenge, Marewski says, is getting the kids to like it. On May 22, Marewski and her colleagues in the project marketed the concept to the students at Miami Southwest High School where they brought not only the mushrooms but edible flowers and various fruit- and vegetable-flavored crackers.
"The trick is going to be getting the kids to like it," Marewski says. "They were thinking it was so weird but it became like 'Who's man enough to eat a flower?' It was really interesting to see how the function of peer pressure works."
About 300 kids participated in the tasting and only about 10 kids displayed an unfavorable response, Marewski says.
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After they are harvested, the oyster mushrooms are dehydrated and flavored with ingredients such as Key salt and dried arugula.
The ultimate goal is to get people to eat more healthy, not just kids but adults too. "We're really using the tools of the trade for the health rather than the money," Marewski says.
This will not be the last you hear of the oyster mushrooms. Paradise Farms will be holding some focus group tastings in the upcoming school year.