When the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New Jersey (NOFA-NJ) holds its 21st annual winter conference this weekend, it will include the expected expert-led talks, seminars, and workshops aimed at farmers, home gardeners, and consumers who are interested in local, organic, and sustainably grown products. But it will also feature an added track this year: a series of hands-on workshops directed solely at children ages 6 to 12. The Kids’ Conference, as it’s called, is being presented in collaboration with the New Jersey Farm to School Network and will feature experts and educators in the fields of food, cooking, gardening, agriculture, and science. Among the topics are worm composting, becoming a supermarket “spy,” agriculture in the classroom, and exploring the fundamentals of flavor.

There are two other key changes this year: the conference will take place at Princeton University, and it will expand from one day to two. In fact, the idea for including children came about in part because the conference now stretches over Saturday and Sunday, says NOFA-NJ co-executive director David Glenn. “In the past, we found that some participants with children at home may have fretted about them and not stayed as long as they would have liked — or perhaps they had a babysitter they needed to relieve by a certain time. This way, we hope participants will feel more relaxed, knowing that their kids are also involved in structured programs each day. And for the kids themselves, we want to offer them opportunities to learn in a fun environment.” Speakers for the eight kids’ workshops have been lined up by NOFA-NJ staff and Beth Feehan, director of the NJ Farm to School Network.

But the NOFA volunteer coordinating that track is, fittingly, not that far from childhood herself. Stacy Brody is a junior at Rutgers University, majoring in plant science and agriculture. She first got involved with NOFA as a freshman. “I registered to attend the conference which, at that time, was held here on campus,” she says. “The next year I volunteered to work the conference, and this year, I’m coordinating the kids’ track.”

She lined up one of her own professors, Joseph Heckman (himself a father), to conduct Sunday’s session on worm composting. Brody says she volunteers for NOFA, despite her busy school schedule, not just because the contacts and connections she makes will prove useful in her future profession, but because she admires the non-profit’s mission and message. “Mostly it’s because I love the people involved with NOFA. And the public doesn’t realize how important producing sustainable and local food is. I also like that membership is open to everyone, from backyard gardeners to certified organic farmers — but that it’s not limited to certified farms.”

For a child to attend the conference, a parent (or guardian) must be registered as well. Some of the protocols in place to ensure parents’ peace of mind include personally signing children in at the start of each day and showing ID when picking them up, leaving a mobile phone number, and completing a food allergies form. In addition, all children’s activities will take place in one room throughout the two-day conference. For a full listing of policies, pricing, and the full schedule of activities — both for little ones and adults — visit nofanj.org.

One of the kids’ track presenters is Stacey Antine, founder and CEO of HealthBarn USA, with locations in Wyckoff and in North Salem, NY. The company provides hands-on programs that teach children (and their families) about healthy lifestyle choices, including the opportunity for children to work on a farm to learn about nutrition by growing, harvesting, and cooking with fresh, seasonal foods. Antine, a registered dietician with a master’s degree from NYU, has appeared on the Rachael Ray Show and writes a column for Ray’s magazine. Both Antine and HealthBarn USA have been featured on CNN, CBS, Fox, and PBS.

During Antine’s two sessions she will be turning children into “supermarket spies” by pairing off the older and younger in a game that has them going up and down simulated supermarket aisles comparing side-by-side jars of peanut butter, jams, cereals, tomato sauces, and other kid-friendly favorites. This comes after they have learned about important nutritional differences between “food from nature” and “food from factories.” “But,” Antine notes, “not by looking at the front of the package — we teach them that is just advertising — but rather by looking at the list of ingredients. By this point, they’ve learned about ‘keys’ like high fructose corn syrup. And for those kids who don’t read well, we’ve given them this rule of thumb: look for five ingredients or less.”

The kids especially love coming away feeling that they have “found out” something their parents — even the most well-intentioned of them — may not know about making smarter choices. “That next time they’re shopping with their parents, they can ‘correct’ them — as opposed to fighting and pleading with them to buy something with, say, SpongeBob on the box. In other words, the children actually learn to see the products, not the marketing. Once they get educated, they really shop differently; they actually choose the natural one.”

NOFA-NJ Winter Conference, Saturday and Sunday, January 29 and 30, on the campus of Princeton University. It is not necessary to register for both days. Cost varies. For information, and to register call 908-371-1111, extension 5, or visit www.nofanj.org.

Update on Le Bec-Fin: In my column of November 17, 2010, about the demise of Lahiere’s restaurant in Princeton, I noted that famed Philadelphia restaurateur Georges Perrier had decided to close his iconic French restaurant this coming April. Perrier has reconsidered and announced on January 2 that he intends to keep his flagship in operation.

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