On Kids and Food
by: Common Threads Farm, Laura Plaut Posted on: October 21, 2012
By Laura Plaut, Founder and Director of Common Threads Farm, a nonprofit on a mission to connect young people with healthy food through hands-on, seed-to-table educational programs.
You might already know this, but in case you don’t… Kids will eat vegetables.
They’ll eat them happily across race, socioeconomic, and cultural lines. Exuberantly even. It is the very rare child who – when offered a well-facilitated opportunity – isn’t eager to connect with real food. But when I use words like “opportunity” and “connect”, I’m not just talking about putting a plate of spinach in front of a kid and expecting them to eat it. That rarely works, and it’s this sort of “exposure” to healthy food that leads so many adults, including parents and school food service staff, to conclude that “kids just don’t like that stuff,” and justify serving children the easy sellers like chicken nuggets and pizza.
I write these words with some confidence. For the past six years I’ve been running seed-to-table educational programs at Common Threads Farm, a Bellingham based nonprofit on a mission to connect young people with healthy food. Thousands of kids later, I can tell you that the spinach a child picks and eats while standing in the sunshine out in the garden is fundamentally and wonderfully different from the spinach that was grown miles away, bagged, and shipped to their plate. It tastes different, for starters. Kids tell me, “It tastes green, you can almost taste the vitamins.” This makes sense, since the spinach from the garden is nutritionally different than the food from far, far away.
But the spinach that kids help grow is also different from the delicious spinach grown by a local farmer. This is because the real reason that kids are popping spinach (and just about everything else from the garden) into their mouths has less to do with flavor or nutritional content and more to do with their feelings of engagement both with the food and with the natural world around them. They are learning to appreciate the work and care that goes into growing good food, the taste of local fresh food, and the relationship with their food that comes after long hours spent in the garden. Exposing kids to spinach that they have helped to plant, harvest, and prepare is priming the pump for their support of local agriculture. Most kids won’t end up growing a lot of their food, but their direct experience with food prepares them to appreciate and enjoy local food in ways they might not otherwise.
If you haven’t seen this happen, it may be a little hard to imagine. On a daily basis, even the kids who initially resist coming into the garden are enticed by the open invitation of, “Hey, does anyone want to taste this?” Spinach, chard, lettuce, kale, beets – you name it. I’m not saying that every kid tries and enjoys every food, but I am saying that, almost without exception, kids are more eager to engage with fresh, healthy food than most adults give them credit for.
I’m also shamelessly promoting the power of positive peer pressure. There are lots of things that kids learn more successfully in the company of their peers than they would at home – even if their home environment is one where the exact same messages are being offered up. If there’s one kid in a group who tries and likes something, other children will follow.
In our seed-to-table programs at Common Threads, we don’t stop with growing and tasting the food in the garden. We take the food from the garden and cook it, and the kids fall in love just a little bit more. The food that they’re being invited to eat; food that they’ve planted and cared for, harvested and washed, cut and cooked, is their friend by the time they chow down. Study after study confirms that kids are much more likely to eat foods that they’ve helped to grow and prepare, and suggests that creating opportunities for children to grow and prepare healthy food may be the single most critical way to increase the amount of fresh fruits and vegetables they consume. 1
So kids will eat vegetables. Who cares? I do – passionately. I want to make sure the next generation grows up in a world where good food is normal, joyful, and accessible. I want this not only because I want to see children who are alive in their bodies – who have the fuel they need to pay attention in class, run hard and jump high – but also because I want these kids on my side as we work together to create a food revolution. I want them to stand up and demand – at home, at school, and at the market – that we provide them with healthy food. I want them to have the experience and the imagination to know that there is something better than Uncrustables (if you haven’t encountered this lovely staple of school lunch, google it) and baby carrots out of a bag.
In my community, we’ve implemented a school Harvest of the Month program where once a month kids in public schools from across nine districts in Whatcom County are fed a featured local produce item. The kids love it, and the food service staff feel good about serving it. But this is just a first step. A teacher recently said to me, “I’d love to be able to promote the Harvest of the Month, but my kids are smart: if I start a conversation about the one meal a month that is really high quality, talk inevitably turns to why we’re not feeding them better on all of the other days.”
I want kids eating good food not only because it’s good for them, but also because if you look at just about any important social or environmental issue of our day, the way that we as a society interact with food is part of the problem and has the potential to be part of the solution. When we fail to connect our kids with healthy food, we are selling them short, at tremendous personal, social and environmental costs that manifest not only in obesity, diabetes and behavioral problems, but also in environmental issues such as climate change and social issues such as the substandard working conditions of farm-workers.
Kids can and will eat well, and it’s our job to help kids fall in love with the kinds of foods that are going to sustain the health of their bodies, their communities, and our natural environment for years to come. Systems theorist Buckminster Fuller once said, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” One of the easy, grassroots ways that we can build a new food system model is by gardening and cooking with kids. Kids are a wonderful fulcrum – if we can leverage their interest in healthy foods and healthy food systems, they will bring their adults along!
Like so many of my generation, I did not grow up thinking about my role in the food system. My parents fed me what we all agreed was “healthy food”, and it never occurred to me, sitting at the family table, to wonder if the food we were eating was locally grown or whether we knew the farmer who had grown it. I didn’t think about how our purchasing decisions affected the local economy, nor did I think about food miles, or farm worker rights, or the effects of industrial agriculture on soil and environmental health. Information about how commodity subsidies were shaping our food system simply wasn’t a part of my consciousness.
In my childhood, eating wasn’t talked about – except by the relative few – as a political or environmental act. We didn’t have Michelle Obama’s Whitehouse garden, or Michael Pollan as our articulate food-system gadfly. Nor, of course, had we yet identified or documented escalating rates of diabetes and obesity or the compelling connection of the dots between food systems and climate change.
The world has changed. The idea that our food system – if not already conclusively “broken” – is at least not as strong as it needs to be, is one that is reasonably well accepted. There are genuine obstacles to changing our food system. Take school lunch, for example, where challenges include everything from procurement (is there a local farmer who can get enough food to the school district in a form that kitchen staff can receive?), to kitchens equipment (most school kitchens are currently set up to heat and serve, but not to cook from scratch), to the nagging reality of funding (how good can we make our school lunches when there’s so little money allocated to do it?) I am not naïve about these realities.
Food activist and author, Oran Hesterman, has likened the food system to the Berlin Wall, and offers the hopeful reminder that no one is really sure which small stone it was that finally led to the wall’s collapse.2 We may not see the immediate consequence of our actions; it may be years of small actions that finally bring us to the restoration (or re-creation) of a food system that we can believe in.
So I ask, which brick of this system are you chipping away at? Here are some ideas:
- Plant a garden, ideally with a young person. Your sense of wonder and enthusiasm will be contagious.
- Buy produce that is fresh, local, and in season, direct from the farmer when possible.
- Cook real food. Better yet, cook with a child.
- Advocate for healthy food – with your local school board, your elected officials, your friends and family.
- Find out if your child’s school has a garden. If it doesn’t, help start one3.
There are new models to be built, and walls yet to crumble.
1 For a comprehensive list of research on the benefits of gardening with children, check out the National Gardening Association’s compilation: http://www.kidsgardening.org/article/research-supporting-benefits-school-gardens
2 Oran B. Hesterman, Fair Food (New York: Public Affairs, 2011) 42
3 If you’re in Whatcom County, Common Threads can help start and sustain your school garden – www.commonthreadsfarm.org
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