“I’m fishing” my daughter called out from the stream in which she had stuck a dead tree branch she’d found.
I was feeling very proud of myself, having convinced my family to go backpacking and, after a sleepless night where we were all uncomfortably squished in a tent, was telling myself that it had been well worth it to give the girls some unfettered nature time.
“What are you fishing for?” I hollered back.
“Um,” she thought for a minute, searching for what she might actually find in the murky depths rushing past her.
After a minute she answered uneasily: “Birthday cake?”
No, an overnight in the words would not undo the harm of modern city life for my girls. They would not suddenly understand how the natural world provides or where our always available food actually comes from.
To them, food emerges as if by magic. If chicken comes from a bin in Safeway and rice from a microwave, why can’t birthday cakes emerge from a stream?
This is exactly the disconnect that Andrea Northup is trying to confront.
Northup is the founder of the D.C. Farm to School Network, which connects schools with local food producers and also takes school kids on trips to local farms.
Earlier this month, Northup received an award from the the Natural Resources Defense Council for being a “bold thinker who is transforming the American food system.”
I talked with her about how parents can help children better understand the origins of food and why this topic is so important.
Here’s our Q&A:
Why is it important for kids to understand where food comes from?
We are up against a multi-billion dollar advertising industry working to pack more calories of food into our nation’s kids just to make a profit. Unfortunately as a result, kids are less familiar with the very types of foods that are most healthy for them, like fruits and veggies.
So in order to encourage kids to try and choose those types of foods, we have to have an equally compelling campaign. What’s more exciting than seeing a lettuce plant grow from a seed? Or pulling a carrot from the ground, rinsing it off, and taking a bite? Not only do hands-on experiences that connect kids with their source of food make them more apt to try those foods, but they help kids realize that when they choose them they’re supporting a nearby farmer.
What can a parent do to teach kids about the origins of food?
Volunteer on a nearby farm or urban garden.
Kids really feel empowered when they’re a part of growing something, and when they do so alongside a real, live farmer! Involve kids in any sort of fun food preparation activities (like making strawberry-yogurt parfaits, or home-made pizza) The more you can expose kids to fun, hands-on growing, cooking and tasting experiences that are fun and delicious, the more meaningful the farm-to-table process becomes to them.
Why are you working with schools on this?
I think Farm to School hits on so many pressing issues of our time. Child obesity will cripple this and future generations of youth if we aren’t radical in the way we change what kids are eating (and how much they’re moving). And the “ripple effect” to parents and teachers when we make change in schools is huge.
The loss of small farms as they lose out to development or industrial farms, and the aging of the farmer population will soon leave us with a diminishing supply of good food if we don’t make sure that farmers have the markets and resources they need.
I’m working with schools on this issue because they’re natural institutions for learning and setting lifelong habits; they have federal money to spend on buying food for kids each day; they serve millions of meals (breakfast, lunch and in some cases dinner) to some of the most vulnerable children in America; and they provide a reliable customer for growers in the region. And if schools can start to make changes, they can help drive a broader shift towards more healthy, local food in other institutional buyers, and in the end, consumers.
What do you think? How can we best re-connect our families to the natural food cycle?