BY JENNIE HOLT*
When I think back to childhood, I don’t have many moments where I remember sitting in a classroom completely engrossed in what the teacher was saying. I do remember field trips however, every one of them. I also remember recess and lunch. What was being served in the school cafeteria could make or break your day. There was no salad bar, and there were no fresh apples either.
I grew up in rural Missouri in an area heavily populated by farmers and rows of cornfields as far as your eye could see. My favorite early school memory was in 2nd grade when my teacher decided to participate in the school-wide production of “healthy eating.”
I am sure many of you remember the ‘good ol’ Basic Four Food Groups. We were to dress up as our favorite fruit or vegetable, strut across stage, and say a few words (in character, of course). I am the child of two artists, so the mundane was never an option for me. My vegetable was to be the cinnamon stick. My costume, I made myself. My father helped me gather materials, and soon enough I was wrapped in a noodle of tempura brown painted cardboard. There were holes for my arms to stick out and my legs stuck out underneath like a frightened chicken. When it became time to walk across the stage, I was unafraid and strutted to the center declaring, “I am spicy!”
I tell this story because I think that it is very telling that growing up in such a heavily populated farming community, I was unclear about fruits or vegetables outside of potatoes, carrots, corn, and apples. The story makes me smile, while at the same time I cannot help but think there are so many children in our communities who do not have a rich food vocabulary. Many of these children do not know what an eggplant or acorn squash is. They do not understand where their food comes from outside of the grocery store or the significance that making good food choices will have on their lives down the road.
Grass-fed beef, and free range eggs, organic verses non-organic, GMOs, and raw milk are all words that are common place to the local food enthusiast, but do our children know the meaning of the words? If they do not, then how can we expect them to have a clear understanding of why we as family farmers or consumers are working so hard to protect a healthy and productive food supply? They will not have the common sense to make good choices if they are not well informed and schooled about diversified farming systems.
I experienced this first-hand while working for a non-profit in Lincoln, Nebraska, called Community CROPS. I was the director of youth programs and ran the largest urban farm in the state connected to a school. The students and I ran a small farmers market, constructed hoop houses, and took numerous field trips to actual farms. Part of my job was to connect the classroom to the farm, and in doing so I was continually shocked at how little these kids knew about sustainable agriculture and healthy food systems.
I do not need to remind you that in Nebraska the football team is named the “Cornhuskers,” so farming is something that almost all people were connected to. Many of the middle school students spent their summers de-silking rows and rows of corn for farmers. They did not know however, where their food came from. They did not, for the most part, understand that a french fry came from a tuber, which grew underground. Understood is perhaps not the correct word to use, but they certainly did not make the connection.
Connecting farms to schools is another avenue that we, as farmers and consumers, can use to educate others about our cause. If we can create bridges between schools and farms, we can create awareness that begins in the classroom and branches out to families, furthering public education about healthy food systems. Those of you with school aged children know that you will be sent endless notes home over the course of a school year, why can’t some of these notes be entitled “Come meet your local farmer.” Host events where parents are invited to taste and experience food from a local farm, or a farmer reads a story to a class and then tells a story about their farm, bridging the gap between the students and the origin of their food.
We need to bridge those gaps more definitively between farms and schools so that our bodies benefit from education and not just our minds. A healthy mind and body cannot be achieved without healthy food.
If you are interested in increasing your child’s fruit and vegetable consumption, or expanding market opportunities for farmers, Farm to School is a win-win situation. Here is an excerpt from the National Farm to School Network:
Farm to School programs are based on the premise that students will choose to eat more healthy foods, such as fruits and vegetables, if they have positive experiences and relationships with the source of their food. These experiences (including school gardens, farm field trips, and cooking with local food) are not only critical components of obesity prevention strategies, but also important teaching tools that meaningfully engage students while building connections to agricultural heritage and rural communities. National Farm to School Network. (2011).
As parents, we want our children to have positive relationships with their foods and food sources, as well as more community education and involvement at a grass roots level. What excites me about farming education programs so much is that they create an ethics of earth stewardship connecting kids to soil and earth and growing food and fiber. As farmers, we want others to understand the importance of our role in healthy food systems.
Here’s a link to the Texas Farm to School Network:
Or checkout CAFF (Community Alliance with Family Farmers) which has manuals with information about hosting school visits:
CAFF’s Making the Farm Connection This manual is designed to help build farmer’s capacity to host school visits on their farms. It covers what to expect, how to run tours, information on insurance and connecting with schools
CAFF’s Farm to School Guide for Parents and Community MembersThis “how-to” guide to farm to school for parents and community members provides information, resources, and a step-by-step guide on how to start farm to school programs or plug into existing ones.
And, here is a list of 400 children’s books related to farming, gardening, and local food compiled by The Oregon Department of Education: BOOK LIST: 400 titles! Children’s books dealing with fruits, vegetables & gardening!
National Farm to School Network. (2011). Statistics. www.farmtoschool.org
Klemmer, C.D., Waliczek, T.M. & Zajicek, J.M. (2005). Growing Minds: The Effect of a School Gardening Program on the Science
* Jennie Holt lives in Ackerly Texas on a cotton farm and is a teacher, and sustainable agriculture advocate. She is co-founder of the Texas based non-profit Eco-Stead, which is working to connect rural students to the foods we eat and grow while striving to raise food awareness and healthy living. A yoga teacher, and self- proclaimed homesteader she occupies much of her free time in the pursuit of greater flexibility and healthy living.