CLEVELAND (WJW) – Ben Bebenroth has spent his entire life around food.

“We grew up next to a farm, and our neighbor on the other side was an avid fisherman. So, we were always on the receiving end of the bounty,” said Bebenroth, Chef, and Founder of Spice Hospitality Group.

This year, Bebenroth’s nearly 20-year catering, farming, and dining business is also celebrating six years of teaching others to connect with their food source. It’s an effort made possible through the Group’s non-profit: Spice Field Kitchen.

“We had some schools come out to volunteer on the farm. That’s when it became very obvious. It was like, ‘Oh, we have a STEM program on our hands,’ where we’re connecting food, culinary skills, agriculture skills, and nutritional education,” said Bebenroth.

The non-profit’s Chief Operating Officer, Steven Baker, is a licensed educator. While he’s no longer in the classroom, he still uses those skills to teach students from eight local school communities everything from what foods are locally and when to carbon emissions and how to harvest their own greens.

“These kids were able to harvest from the outsides of those lettuce plants, and they’re able to come in again, so they can get two or three harvests out of that plant,” said Baker.

By providing kids and their families the opportunity to experience different foods, Baker and Bebenroth say Spice Field Kitchen is creating the next generation of healthy eaters.

“I’ll pass a big shiitake around and like, you know, grate your thumb over the gills, listen to it, smell it, look at it. You know, flick the top of it,” said Bebenroth.

Baker told Fox 8 News students are often surprised to learn how certain foods grow and how fast others can grow.

Those lessons give the staff hope that despite an abundance of fast-food options, more people will choose nutrient-dense snacks and meals because they’ve been taught to make things like butternut squash macaroni and cheese.

“That butternut squash, if I gave it to you whole, unpeeled, unseeded, uncut, and maybe, you don’t have a lot of culinary skill, or you don’t have a lot of culinary equipment, that butternut squash just sits there, right?” said Bebenroth.

“How do I get this turned into that? Those skills and acknowledging that that piece of squash has all these vitamins and minerals and micronutrients in it, that’s the work, right?”

One of the most valuable lessons participants at Spice Field Kitchen learn is about exposure. While Baker and Bebenroth don’t expect the students to like every food they try, they encourage a conversation to understand why.

“Use your culinary language and tell me what you don’t like about this dish. I don’t want to hear nasty, I don’t want to hear gross, tell me it’s too salty, tell me it’s too sweet, tell me it’s too crunchy,” said Bebenroth.

The discussion and interactive learning are part of Spice Field Kitchen’s mission to ensure others know how to grow, preserve and cook their own food to their liking.

“We can’t just say, oh, food is medicine, but you’re talking to someone that is a 50-year-old diabetic and just berating them with this message,” said Bebenroth. “We’re negating the fact that we haven’t done the education and the introduction to ingredients and addressing food deserts.”

Spice Field Kitchen has a free online curriculum available if you’re interested in learning about local food systems and how to make healthy food choices. You can find out more about it here.