Every night, my 4-year-old son sits down at the dinner table, carefully inspects his food, and asks, “What IS this? And who made it?”
He isn’t being rude or critical — he sincerely wants to know. Did this meat come from a chicken or pig? How did the rice get on his plate? Who grew the carrots he’s eating? How did his milk make its way from the farm to the store to his glass?
My husband and I are happy to give our son a “farm-to-table” education by explaining what we’re eating, where it came from and how it got to our table.
“Promoting a relationship for children with food and food production leads young people to be more engaged with their own health and develop lifelong habits that will serve them into their future,” said Jacqueline Maisonpierre, farm director for New Haven Farms, a nonprofit organization based in Connecticut that rehabilitates urban spaces into organic farms.
“Learning about nutrition and developing healthy habits as a young person can have long-term impacts on health and well being, leading to lower incidence of chronic diet-related disease,” she said.
Teaching kids where their food comes from is valuable — but actually providing this kind of education in a hands-on way is a challenge for many parents. Not all families have a back yard. Some don’t have easy access to grocery stores that sell fresh foods. And others cannot afford to purchase higher-quality, locally grown foods or participate in Community Supported Agriculture programs.
In an ideal world, “farm to table” eating habits would be possible for all families. In reality, it can feel like an unattainable goal. But teaching kids about the origins of their food isn’t impossible; it just requires a little bit of creativity and a whole lot of community cooperation. Here are some simple ways to get started.
Get in the kitchen with your kids. When food comes ready-made in a package or is passed through a drive-through window, there’s an inevitable detachment. Buying the individual ingredients to make meals from scratch at home — at least some of the time — is worth the extra effort: The act of cooking invites kids to not only touch, taste and explore their food, but to ask questions about it. Why does it have seeds? Why don’t we eat the skin? Why was it packaged this way? How do we know when it’s ready to eat?
Deborah Grieg, farm director at Common Ground in New Haven, Conn., recommends starting simply. “You can involve your child in the basics, like helping with dinner, or try interesting projects like making butter, pizza, jam or something else they might have only seen in the store or in a restaurant,” she said. “[Cooking with kids] raises conversations and helps expand their palate.”
Start with a seed. Located at the base of a state park in an otherwise densely populated city, Common Ground’s campus offers several ways to learn about growing food: a charter high school, an urban farm and an environmental education center for kids and adults, all designed to increase the community’s connection to and understanding of the natural world.
A wide variety of fruits, vegetables and herbs are grown on-site in the campus gardens, but Grieg says the simple act of sprouting seeds on a windowsill offers just as much opportunity for childhood learning: “Even if it doesn’t make it to a large plant, it’s a great way to see something growing.”
Seed sprouting is an easy, foolproof activity: Wrap a dried bean (pinto and lima work well) in a damp paper towel and place it in a see-through glass or plastic cup on a windowsill. Within a few days, the bean will begin sprouting, and kids can examine its growth step-by-step.
Practice “food mapping.” “It’s important for kids to know where their food comes from so they have more of an appreciation for food and farmers,” said Alexa Fiszer, a lead environmental educator at Common Ground. “This [appreciation] often helps evolve kids’ understanding of the food production system and the ways in which it has evolved over the course of history.”
Most of us don’t consider the resources, like electricity and gas, that are required to transport our food from its point of origin to the supermarket. Grieg encourages families to create a “food map” to better understand the relationships among nutrition, farming and freshness.
“After [grocery] shopping, look at where your food is coming from — the locations where it was grown or shipped from — and map those routes out,” she said. “You can then start talking about how traveling long distances can affect the nutrients and quality of the food you eat, who might be growing your food, what their lives might be like and the environmental impact of eating [certain foods].”
Get your hands dirty. Studies have shown that kids are more willing to try a new food if they have helped with its growth or preparation. Families that have access to a patch of back-yard green — even a small one — can plant tomatoes, squash, lettuce or herbs. A child who “hates” green beans just might be tempted to eat some for dinner if she feels a sense of pride and accomplishment over helping those green beans get onto her plate.
Communicate with your child’s school. More schools are seeing the value in connecting their students to the food production process, whether it’s through participation in farm to school initiatives or by starting their own school gardens. If your child’s school hasn’t started thinking about this yet, it might be time to advocate for some changes, or at least request a field trip to a local farm.
There is also a wealth of educational material available online for teachers who want to promote this kind of learning in their classrooms: The Edible Schoolyard Project offers lesson plans by grade, Netflix is home to several documentaries about food production appropriate for older grades (including “Food, Inc.” and “Forks Over Knives”) and Let’s Move is a good starting point for schools looking to improve the quality of their school lunches.
Tap into your local resources, whatever and wherever they may be. Most people associate the idea of “farm to table” foods with rural communities, but even urban ones are joining the trend. Community gardens are everywhere — including metropolitan areas — and always need volunteers. Farmers markets, which pop up seasonally, are a chance for families to get an up-close look at foods they might not otherwise encounter, chat with local farmers, and sample fruits and vegetables. (Though farmers markets may not be an affordable option every week, there are often coupons for SNAP recipients that could make the occasional trip possible.)
Finally, urban farms like Common Ground and the ones developed by New Haven Farms seem rare, but are actually not so hard to find: There are more of them, most are accessible by public transportation and many offer open farm days, where families are invited to explore the grounds and learn about the food grown on-site.
“I think kids are willing to try a wider variety of food when they see where it grows from, and they are excited to pick [food] themselves,” Fiszer said. “A hands-on approach [like this] shows kids the physical work that goes into harvesting and tending to food, and consequently, a better appreciation for food is often formed.”
Sarah Bradley is a freelance writer from Connecticut. She is mother to three wild and wonderful boys, and wife to one extremely patient husband. You can find her documenting her attempts at balancing the mother/writer life on Instagram.
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