The Slowcook at Spydog Farm The Slowcook at Spydog Farm

Connecting Schools With Local Farms

September 26th, 2009 · 2 Comments · Posted in kids, Sustainability

Kids love fresh fruits and vegetables

Kids love fresh fruits and vegetables

This week was the big rollout of our local farm to school network here in the District of Columbia, but for me it was more like a tale of two cities.

My job was to give food demonstrations to the kids in two elementary schools, one a predominantly white school in an affluent area of the District, the other a predominantly Hispanic school closer to the inner-city. In the more affluent school, nearly all of the kids had heard of farmers markets. There was one right up the street near the local Safeway. In the Hispanic school, the kids had no idea what a farmers market was. But several had actually been to a farm.

“My grandmother’s got a farm,” said one fourth-grader. “She grows tomatoes and cucumbers and watermelon. She has chickens, too.”

“Really?” I replied. “Where’s her farm?”

“Oh, she’s back in Salvador.”

Walking into two public schools I had never seen before, my plan simply was to take along some fresh vegetables, talk to the kids about where food comes from and have them cut and eat the produce with some ranch dressing. The food provider for the city schools, Chartwells, part of the giant international food conglomerate Compass Group, sent five cases of produce for the occasion: green peppers, yellow squash, cucumbers, Gala apples and watermelon.

I know from the food appreciation classes I teach that kids are immediately engaged with food if you give them a chance to handle it and work it over with some sort of kitchen tool. In this case, each kid got a paper plate and a plastic knife with which to carve up a portion of either a fruit or a vegetable, then share it and the ranch dressing with their cohorts. Nothing–I repeat nothing–could please kids more. It was a huge success.

Of course it struck me immediately that there was nothing local about the produce I received from Chartwells. It was your garden variety, industrial food stuff. I guess I was supposed to pretend it was local (not that it would make any difference), but I couldn’t help using the apple as a prop for the discussion about the virtues of local food when I noticed that the price lookup sticker on the apple indicated it had been grown in New Zealand.

At the second school I visited, we gave this demonstration in the art room where there just happened to be a globe handy. The teacher who was assisting me walked around the classroom with the globe and showed the kids how these apples had come literally from the other side of the world. Why do you suppose that is, when we have lots of apples growing in Virginia and Maryland, just a few miles from where we were sitting?

This was part of a series of events called Local Flavor Week in the D.C. Schools. Farmers were visiting classrooms to give talks, nutritionists and chefs like me were engaging in food demonstrations. It all kicked off on Tuesday at Thurgood Marshall Public Charter High School in Southeast Washington, where numerous officials from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the local school system were on hand to watch two chefs compete to make dishes out of some of the produce grown in the school’s garden. Activities were scheduled in more than sixty public and charter schools, driving home the message that eating locally grown foods not only helps support the local farm economy, but results in a healthier diet for kids.

I’m not sure kids really care much where their food comes from. They just like the idea of eating real fruits and vegetables, in contrast to the factory food they are fed every day. In the D.C. public schools, the meals arrive in little plastic containers, all sealed up and ready to be warmed, then placed on a steam table. The food, though not as bad as some I’ve seen, falls somewhere short of airline fare, and watching the kids walk through the food line, picking up their little packets of chicken pasta or pizza, I couldn’t help feeling depressed.

Even more depressing is the fact that our farm to school agenda is not even aimed so much at the public school system. At this piont, there are just too many regulatory and price hurdles to overcome to penetrate the cafeteria lines in the public schools. Rather, our efforts currently target charter schools, which can independently buy local products if they choose.

But farm to school is about more than just fruits and vegetables. It really should be about reconnecting people with the source of their food, about working with local producers to build sustainable local food systems that people can call their own. Because I’ve gardened with kids, because I teach them about where food comes from and and how to prepare it, I know how eagerly they embrace the idea of eating fresh, healthy food when they are given the opportunity.

Kevin Jackson, the health and physical education teacher at Powell Elementary, the second school I visited, seemed absolutely desperate to repeat this experience. He wanted to know if we had other programs to offer. What more could we do?

I wasn’t sure what to tell him. Everywhere I go, I see schools that should have their own gardens. I see kids who would love to work with food if they could. I see huge possibilities and unfilled needs. But reading and math always come first, and sometimes there seems to be little energy or interest or money for anything else. Gardens and farms and fresh food are distant concepts. How do we change that? How do we make food more of a priority in our schools?

I don’t have the answer. But maybe with all the energy and enthusiasm behind the D.C. Farm to School Network, we can make a dent.

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  • gmanubay

    I’m so pleased with all of the focus right now in DC revolving around gardening. Local Flavor Week is just another great way to build awareness for all the schools that have edible gardens and/or have teachers that can integrate these types of lessons into the school day. Next up – DC School Garden Week! One of our events will be showing a documentary that Thurgood Marshall Academy students created when they asked themselves the question about where their school lunch comes from. For your readers who are interested, check for more info.

  • Ed Bruske

    Grace, School Garden Week certainly is a noble cause. I hope everyone signs up for the tour. It sounds like there are more and more school gardens hapening every year. Very encouraging.