Waltham Butternut Squash Soup

As part of our participation in Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! initiative, Healthy Waltham and Northeast Elementary School students worked together to create a delicious soup recipe for the Recipes for Healthy Kids Challenge, now posted on its website. To submit a recipe into the competition, students had to create a nutritious dish featuring one of three specific food groups: whole grains, dark green or orange vegetables, or dried beans and peas. Home to the well-known and very-orange Waltham Butternut Squash, the final decision on what to cook up was a no-brainer!

Photo by Maria DiMaggio (2010).

Keep your eyes peeled for more healthy recipes on our blog in the coming weeks!


The Recipes for Healthy Kids banner image used via their website: http://www.recipesforkidschallenge.com.

Are Worms Sensitive to Light?

Last week at McDevitt Middle School, students in Mrs. Murray’s science Cluster Challenge designed simple experiments to find out if worms are sensitive to light. Students worked alone and in groups to develop a hypothesis (a predicted result), an experimental procedure (a means of testing a hypothesis), and a conclusion (what was observed during the experiment and possible causes of the result).

Students used classroom materials such as empty boxes, black and brown construction paper, and flashlights to see what happens when worms are placed in light or dark conditions but given the option to move between the two constructed environments. Each experiment used a sample size (the number of things being observed or tested in a scientific study) of 6-10 different worms in order to ensure results that better represent typical behavior of the general red wiggler population (the total number of organisms for a defined area or group; can be very specific, like 4th grade students at Northeast Elementary, or very broad, like all Waltham students under the age of 18).

After trying several techniques to see if the worms liked or disliked being exposed to light, students concluded that worms are definitely sensitive to light. They almost always tried to slither into darkness when under the flashlight! Even when they were simply sitting on a table, the worms tried whatever they could to escape light, as you can see in the picture below.

Why might worms be so sensitive to light? Since we know that worms need their skin to stay nice and moist so they can breathe, it makes sense that worms feel threatened by light exposure that could potentially heat them up and dry them out. Their reaction (to slither into darkness) is a survival mechanism, or a behavior intended to protect themselves against predators or threatening aspects of their natural environment, such as sunlight.


Why do you think they are wrapping around each other in the petri (pronounced "pee-tree") dish?

Despite annoying them for a little while, no worms were harmed in our experiment. Images by Rebekah Carter (2011).

And so the seeding begins!

Taking in some morning sunshine

Though winds blew briskly Tuesday afternoon, thoughts of early spring warmed our inner green thumb during the garden club kickoff at Stanley Elementary’s after school program. With the eager assistance of several students from grades 2-5, Cece and I helped participants plant our first crops of the growing season. Children took turns filling trays with rich, crumbly soil, then carefully placed the tiny seeds of vegetables such as broccoli and kohlrabi (the green, alien-looking plant pictured at the very top of this blog) and herbs like chives and dill into shallow holes made by the gentle push of a finger.

All seeded!

Also in the planting mix were some Brussels sprouts, giant parsley, and cilantro. These seeds were a bit bigger than those of the broccoli and kohlrabi, but still pretty small, requiring careful holding and placement into the soil. Seeded trays were watered and labeled by the students, then placed on a growing rack set beside the large, south-facing windows of the school’s cafeteria, which will allow warm rays of sunshine to fall upon the soil and baby leaves of young plants.

Loading the plant stand

When the weather warms up enough to begin planting crops outdoors, we will transplant the vegetables into the garden beds so they will have plenty of room to spread their roots and grow up into strong, bountiful plants. With our wet soil conditions from this past winter’s snowstorms, we don’t expect to harvest much of anything before May. But with all the hard work that goes into preparing and maintaining the garden will come many super fresh, homegrown rewards!


Images by Rebekah Carter (2011). For this year’s growing season, we will be using seeds purchased from Johnny’s Selected Seeds and Fedco Co-op Garden Supplies.

Pan-roasted butternut squash @ the Chill Zone

The end result: hot, delicious squash

Healthy Waltham intern Cece and I recently held a cooking activity at the Chill Zone, a safe, fun, and free weekend program hosted by the Waltham Recreation Department for students in grades 6-8. Lucky for us, the Chill Zone has invited Healthy Waltham to regularly host such cooking and garden activities all spring long. For this past Saturday’s session, we decided to cook up something grown right in town: butternut squash from Waltham Fields Community Farm!

While we didn’t follow any particular recipe, you can use the following ingredient list and instructions to help you prepare this healthy dish at home.


Pan-Roasted Butternut Squash

Prepping our ingredients


  • cooking oil (we used vegetable oil)
  • onions, diced
  • butternut squash, peeled and cubed
  • fresh parsley, chopped fine
  • a splash of 100% maple syrup or a tablespoon of brown sugar
  • a splash of vinegar (apple cider or red wine work well)
  • baby spinach, rinsed
  • dried cranberries
  • pecans, chopped (optional, we did not use these due to food allergies)
  • salt to taste


Heat up your cooking oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add your onions; cook them for a few minutes or until they start to brown, stirring often. Next, add your parsley, butternut squash, and a generous sprinkle of salt; stir well to ensure the butternut cubes get coated with onions and oil.  Cover the skillet and let it cook for about 3 minutes to give the squash a good “hard sear” that should result in some browning, called caramelization, which brings out the natural sweetness of the vegetable. Uncover the skillet, add your remaining ingredients (vinegar and syrup or sugar, followed by spinach, cranberries, and nuts) and stir well. Cook until the squash is tender, stirring occasionally. Serve immediately. Bon appetit!


Cooking with the electric wok


Saturday, March 5th, 2011 from 1-3PM*

—–> Creamy Cole Slaw

—–> Indoor container herb garden planning

*There is no Chill Zone this weekend, February 25-26th, due to public school vacation.

Images by Rebekah Carter (2011). For more information on the Chill Zone or how to get involved, please visit their website or contact Recreation Supervisor Kathy Gross.

Vermicomposting at McDevitt Middle School

Wiggling around

Squirmin' around

This past month, Healthy Waltham has teamed up with McDevitt Middle School’s 6th grade science Cluster Challenge teachers and students to begin a project that puts worms to work while reducing waste by recycling kitchen scraps. Vermicomposting, or the use of worms to quicken the decomposition process of plant waste, is an easy, inexpensive, and fun garden activity that can be maintained year round in any climate, as long as you don’t mind sharing some of your indoor space with a sealed bin of worms! To get started, all you need are some basic materials for your bin and bedding, a “starter set” of red wigglers or another type of composting worm, and a handful of kitchen scraps for worm food. For more detailed instructions on building your indoor or outdoor bin, we suggest referring to the New Mexico State University Extension Service’s easy-to-follow instructions available here. Below, we’ve outlined some of the key elements for starting an indoor worm bin at home or in the classroom.

Building Your Bin

While there are specially-made worm composting bins available for purchase, it is much less expensive to build your own using materials that might already in your house or classroom. Bins can be made of wood, plastic, or Styrofoam because such materials will not easily decompose but can be punctured for bin aeration and water drainage, helping to ensure the creation of an optimal worm habitat. Below, we’ve listed some general guidelines for indoor bin construction:

  • A bin should have a depth of 8-12 inches max; anything deeper will likely cause bedding to pack down, which can decrease air flow and kill worms
  • The bin should have a cover to keep light out and bugs in (you might find more than worms in your bin, depending on your starting materials)
  • 1/4 – 1/2 inch holes should be made in the sides and bottom of your bin for aeration and water drainage; a bin can be set atop blocks with a pan or second lid below to collect “compost tea,” the nutrient-dense, liquid portion of compost
  • A general rule of thumb: you will need about 1 square-foot per pound of garbage, and about 2,000 breeders (mature worms; about 2 lbs) are needed to consume 1 pound of garbage per day; with some simple calculations, you can figure out the optimal bin size for your waste needs.

Setting up the bedding

Bedding materials might be even easier to find around the home, classroom, and office. Items such as shredded newspaper (soy-ink only!), computer paper, cardboard, dried leaves, grass clippings, and straw all work very well as worm bin bedding; a combination of these items is even better because it prevents the packing of materials and increases the bedding’s (and therefore compost’s) nutrient content. Bedding must remain moist but not waterlogged; optimally, it should feel like a rung-out sponge: damp but not soaked! Keeping a spray bottle of water near your bin is convenient way to maintain adequate moisture. Some sand or soil must also be added to the bin for the worm’s to properly digest their food since they don’t have teeth to chew. Setting up bedding a week prior to moving the worms into their new home helps ensure the bin will not get too hot as it allows heat-producing bacteria to get the decomposition process started.

Purchasing Worms

Greens are good, but leave out the onions!

For vermicomposting, the best way to get worms is through an online farm, garden or worm supplier, such as those listed here. Feel free to check out your local bait & tackle shop, but they might not sell those worm species best-suited for composting, such as brandling worms (Eisenia fetida) or red wigglers (Lumbricus rubellus).

Maintaining Your Bin

Once started, it relatively easy to maintain your indoor bin. Try to keep your habitat at room temperature, within the range of 55-77 degrees F, for optimal breeding and feeding conditions. As previously mentioned, be sure the bin remains adequately moist; check holes in the bin for blockages. Food scraps, such a fruit and vegetable peels and ends, eggshells, teabags and coffee grinds, and oatmeal are all excellent feeding materials. However, you should avoid adding citrus fruit, garlic, onions, and spicy foods to maintain the proper pH (worms don’t like acidity) and never add meat, dairy, or fats as they not only attract flies and animals but also produce really foul odors!

Finished compost in the worm bin

Within 2-3 months, or when you start to notice bedding disappear, you can begin to harvest the finished compost and perhaps start another bin with your growing worm population!

We’ll continue to follow the results of our McDevitt classroom bins as well as some experimental bins maintained at Brandeis University by Healthy Waltham intern Cece Watkins. For more information on worms and the vermicomposting process, stayed tuned.


Information on vermicomposting provided by The Worm Book by Loren Nancarrow and Janet Hogan Taylor and the New Mexico State University Cooperative Extension Service. Images by Rebekah Carter (2011).