Empowering Kids Through Gardening

October 29, 2012

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Over the past three years, Grow it Green Morristown has seen thousands of children come through the gates of the Urban Farm at Lafayette, a ½ acre farm devoted to teaching our community about healthy eating, sustainable agriculture, and community collaboration.  While each child is unique, there seems to be a common thread among the teachers.  They simply can’t believe it when the children practically knock Farmer Shaun over for a taste of…broccoli.  Yes, the much-maligned vegetable, Brassica oleracea var. botrytis, the dinnertime bane of children across America, is for some reason a champion at the Urban Farm.

Is it because the kids have been convinced by our lectures on the nutritional benefits of this “super food”?  Oh yes, now armed with the knowledge of broccoli’s immune boosting potential, I’m sure all the first graders were thinking they might get out of their flu shots if they snarffed down enough florets.  Ok, maybe not. So, maybe it is because fresh picked produce tastes so delicious?

Die-hard Foodies, you may want to skip this part.

It isn’t about the taste.

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On a child’s first visit to the farm, they have (most likely) never tasted just-picked-broccoli.  In fact, they are stunned to see it growing on a plant, in the first place.  After the kids harvested the edible, immature flower buds (you knew that’s what broccoli was, right?) and give them a quick rinse, they can’t wait to gobble it up – but they’ve never had fresh-picked broccoli, so we know it isn’t the taste they are after. In fact, with some of the children that come to the farm, they’ve never had broccoli – ever.

It isn’t taste that drives them.  It is power.

Rather – empowerment.

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Children are very much aware of the limited power in their lives (ask any toddler you say “no” to).  Food choice is a place where they have a small bit of influence in their lives.  While they can’t control what appears on their plate, they can make a choice to eat or not to eat.  All parents know how that works (ah-hem).

When we give children the opportunity to be participants in the selection of their food – and even better, the growing of their food – they have power in that relationship.  It becomes a positive association of enjoyment and empowerment.  There is a deep motivation to try something new or even re-try a vegetable they believe they don’t enjoy – like broccoli.

After the harvest, clamoring to be the first to get their veggie snack, it is as if the memory of every dinnertime showdown of “finish your peas” never happened.  But that’s a part of the magic of the Urban Farm.  I can’t say that after one trip, their eating habits will be reformed for good!  Though I will say, it is a significant experience for the children.

Grow It Green Morristown 4As they return for multiple visits, the effects of the trips become increasingly self-evident; things once foreign – like how to shell peas – become second nature.  This cumulative experience has the potential to become apart of the lexicon of their childhood, giving a positive definition to their young outdoor memories and laying the groundwork to frame their choices as independent eaters (and stewards of the environment) as young adulthood calls to them with opportunities to make even more expansive food choices.

For some children, creating a lifetime of health eating is more challenging due, in large part, to economics.  You can buy a fast-food hamburger for 99 cents – a salad costs a lot more and is less filling.  Or if you visit the food pantry, most items available are processed food, due to their long shelf life and low cost; fresh vegetables are in very short supply.  For the children of these families, their time at the Urban Farm is even more influential.  The research biologist in me watches with anticipation at the first bite of a green bean, snap pea, broccoli, or even cherry tomato that this child has taken in their life.  Yes – their life.  Imagine if you could remember that moment?

So far, I haven’t seen that moment go awry.  No spit-outs.  No “yuck”!  It is the preverbal “light-bulb” moment when the conscious mind, ignited by the sensorial experience on the taste buds, collides with the physical, subconscious animal-self, hunting for nutrient-dense calories.  The range of facial expressions little kids make is pretty amazing to begin with – then add “first fresh peapod.”  You get my point.

The story of how we as a society have gotten to this place where people have become divorced from the basic knowledge of food production or what fresh food tastes like is a long and complex tail.  At Grow it Green Morristown, the answer to start solving this vast, multifaceted problem is relatively short: grow something edible with a kid.

It doesn’t have to be a whole farm.  It could just be some lettuce in a pot, or a basil plant in the window.  But it needs to be theirs – to love, to care for – and to choose when to eat it.

For yourself, what are your strongest childhood memories? Do they fundamentally shape who you are today?

Samantha Rothman is the co-founder of Grow It Green Morristown; she currently serves as President of the Board of Trustees.  Ms. Rothman has a B.A. in plant ecology from Smith College and Master of Forest Science from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.  After completing her graduate education, she returned home to Morristown where she lives with her husband and two small children.

Throughout the month of October, the Dodge blog is featuring blog posts related to food issues and food systems in honor of Food Day 2012. For a complete archive of our food related articles, please click here.

Images courtesy Grow It Green Morristown