When I was a child, if you told me that food was from the ground, or it looked like it was, I wouldn't touch it. I spent many of my childhood years in the cities of New York, completely disconnected from nature. I did love the rare sightings of squirrels and abundance of pigeons, the occasional trips to Central Park and I was overjoyed by recycling aluminium cans for a few cents in the recycling machines near my home. It was only later in life, in Pennsylvania, that I started to develop a longing to dig in the soil, grow food and eat wild edibles sewn under my feet.
A friend recently posed a question on social media. "Thoughts anyone?" he asked in regards to a photo of a child pulling a carrot from the ground. The photo read "Should children be taught to grow their food as part of their schooling?" A question that I honestly expected everyone to comment on with an emphatic "Yes!" But, this is social media.
My daughter was fortunate to grow up in Pennsylvania in our small home with a third of an acre. When we first moved in, the yard was mostly grass. A few trees were sprinkled here and there, along with rose bushes. My husband and I slowly planted an apple and peach tree. We added a vegetable and herb garden. Each year, the yard swelled with food. During the summer and fall when the fruit was ripe on the trees, green beans were ready to be plucked and the lemon balm took over yet another area, my daughter would go to garden to gather supplies for our dinner. Apples for her school lunches were grown straight from the tree that she sprayed down with cinnamon essential oil to help keep pests away. Peaches turned into pies.
A few blocks down from our home, she had the fortune of working with a gentleman who volunteered his time for an after school program called "Green Team." In addition to cleaning up litter around town, the elementary school children planted a garden on the school property and tended to it. It was because of his time and attention, that these students learned how to grow food, learn about new vegetables they never ate at home and experienced how their work created something. If it were not for this one volunteer, many of those children would never have had the experience.
The answer to that social media question for me was "Yes!" How could we not want to cultivate that ability in our children? Teaching our children how to grow food is not about training them to be future farmers. It is about teaching them good eating habits. According to the American Heart Association, "Today, about one in three American kids and teens is overweight or obese. The prevalence of obesity in children more than tripled from 1971 to 2011.. With good reason, childhood obesity is now the No. 1 health concern among parents in the United States, topping drug abuse and smoking."
Many meals across the country are formulated with processed and fast foods; foods that inevitably are high in sodium, sugar and ingredients that we can hardly even pronounce let alone identify. Our consumption of fruits and vegetables has diminished so much that when people try real food from the garden, it is often thought of as gross. When did carrots and broccoli and apples become disgusting? When did sweet potatoes and mangoes become something that is inedible unless coated with sugar and marshmallows?
So why schools? Why not parents? If you take a look at the socio-economic factor, according to the United States Census Bureau, 46.7 Americans live in poverty. If you take a look at population density, also according to the census, almost 81% of Americans live in urban areas. Urban areas like where I grew up in New York. Areas where the nearest piece of grass was in a public park, not necessarily in your own immediate borough. If you couple the number of people who live in poverty and the vast number of Americans who have no access to even a small plot of land to grow food, you can develop an understanding that most parents do not have the means of integrating an education on gardening at home. Schools however, with government funding, have the means of turning a piece of their existing property into a functioning garden. Whether it's using the grassy area surrounding the school or lifting up the cement playground, revealing the earth that tries to grow through the cracks, schools have the acreage of land to be able to provide the space. Through science, home economics and gym classes, the opportunity to allow students to grow in another level of practical and healthy education is possible.
Being outside in nature also is beneficial to our health. Aside from exercise that inevitably occurs when gardening, the National Wildlife Federation says that some of the benefits for children include increased levels of Vitamin D, decrease in stress, reduction in ADHD symptoms, and "Schools with environmental education programs score higher on standardized tests in math, reading, writing and listening."
Generations ago, when we needed furniture, we cut the wood. We sanded it, shaped it and sealed it. The chair we sat in at the dining room table was cultivated by our own hands. We had pride in knowing that we created something that benefited our lives. Today, our disconnect from our homes to our furniture to even our food have so greatly impacted our lives that we seek fulfillment in temporary distractions. The National Institute of Mental Health reports "Major depression is one of the most common mental disorders in the United States." Could our detachment from the earth, a poor diet and not having something tangible to show, that we have created with our own two hands, have anything to do with this? Perhaps, if we allowed our children to dig in the dirt, we would not only seed a lifetime of a healthy dietary habits, but enable them to grow up with a sense of inner satisfaction. Maybe the simple act of gardening could support a healthy, focused mind available through adulthood. Conceivably, planting, tending to and nourishing ourselves with fresh food, could produce a deeper connection to something greater than ourselves.