“What is it?” a student asked at an Island Grown Schools taste test this month. “It’s a potato,” said the IGS school coordinator, who was giving out little samples of roasted potatoes with rosemary for the students to try. “A what?” asked the student. “You know, French fries are made out of them,” said his friend standing nearby. “Oh, French fries, I know French fries,” the young student said. “Would you like to try it?” asked the coordinator. “No, no,” said the student, shaking his head decisively. Then after a pause, “but I will touch it.” The student tentatively, curiously, touched the piece of potato. “Maybe next month I’ll try it,” he said, and headed outside for recess.

Now in its sixth month, the Harvest of the Month program has included many taste tests like the rosemary potato experiment. These tests are an important part of the program. They give students the chance to experience whole, seasonal foods in whatever way is comfortable for them. In an environment where their peers are tasting these foods around them, we’ve found students from preschool to high school to be adventurous eaters, sampling everything from beet quinoa to seafood chowder. When the samples get a good response, cafeteria directors can then incorporate foods that would otherwise have seemed like a reach. And they help students like this boy take the first hesitant steps toward including whole foods in their diets.

The potato is a great crop to teach in the classroom. It is one of the world’s most important foods; the average global citizen now eats 73 pounds of potatoes each year. Because it is so widely adapted, the way potatoes are grown and cooked has a major impact on our environment, health and on the stability of the global food system. And the history of the potato is fascinating, from its origins in the Andes to its rise in Europe, to the potato blight of the mid-19th century and the resulting famine in Ireland, to the more than 5,000 varieties of potato that exist today following centuries of selective breeding by farmers and growers around the world.

As IGS staff use the potato to teach core curricular standards in the K through 12 public schools, IGS preschool coordinator Emily Duncker is having a great time turning cut potatoes into stamps with preschoolers Islandwide. At the Oak Bluffs school, students made a beautiful banner with colorful potato stamps that now hangs in their school greenhouse.

And cafeteria staff at all schools are using the potato creatively in school meals this month. At the Edgartown School, Gina Debettencourt and her team served a special sweet potato and black bean salad, using dried beans students grew in the school garden. Guest Chef Robin Forte made soft, delicious potato rolls for lunch. At the West Tisbury and Chilmark Schools, students tasted orange and purple sweet potatoes, which cafeteria director Jenny Devivo also incorporated into the day’s meal. One fifth grader said: “I thought the purple ones were going to taste like beets, but when you close your eyes, they taste like a regular potato — but better!”

This is the time to order potatoes for this growing season, and they are one of Island students’ favorite things to grow and harvest in their thriving school gardens. From Teri Mello’s kindergarten class at the West Tisbury School’s incredibly productive sweet potato bed to Connie Alexander and Cathy Weiss’s seventh grade potato bed at Tisbury School, students are growing and harvesting impressive quantities of potatoes. The Edgartown School is averaging 200 pounds of potatoes from their garden each year. Simon Athearn and the team at Morning Glory Farm also welcome field trips in the fall to glean the potatoes the farmers are unable to harvest themselves. The sense of pride and accomplishment students feel after harvesting bushels of potatoes in the span of a class period for their school cafeterias and to share with Islanders in need is palpable.

You can make use of this sustaining winter food in your home kitchen by trying out Chris Fischer’s simple, delicious Oven Roasted Potatoes with Garlic, our featured recipe this month. To download the recipe or to learn more about the Harvest of the Month program, please visit our website.

Noli Taylor is executive director of Island Grown Schools, a program of the Island Grown Initiative. This column appears monthly in the Gazette throughout the duration of the Harvest of the Month program. For more information, go to islandgrown.org/schools.