Food: The Holy Grail

Filling the Cup: 

For adults, espe2008-08 chardcially those charged with feeding the whole family, food is by far the most compelling component of a nature education program, and the first thing, besides recycling, that jumps to mind when starting out on the green school journey.  The golden vision of children eating vegetables straight from the garden is readily fed by our fertile imaginations, not to mention pretty pictures posted on the internet.  The realities of growing food on public school property, in the Mid-West, in a modern culture pressed for time, and on a calendar opposite the school calendar, is a slightly different picture.  Rather than a starting point, the garden-to-table link is a culmination point that requires a sustained effort at building capacity and knowledge.

Working Sustainably

2008-08cucumbersGrowing food requires a great deal of time and effort, not to mention insect control, fences, water, and an abundance of knowledge combined with a great deal of experience, as it takes about five years to become a good teacher, and twenty years to become a good farmer. It is not yet clear to me how to grow a meaningful amount of food in a school setting without grant money, full-time volunteers, a cadre of graduate students, celebrities, or preferably, all of the above.  Again, with a Nature Educator on staff for one hour per day, we are searching for that elusive sustainable model that any school could easily adapt or adopt.

Our indigenous foods

2004 10 Oct 1 pumpkin shotIn terms of food, at the Family Center we have had our best luck growing what I would call the “indigenous foods” of our area.  Pumpkins, squash and corn grow especially well in our gardens and they are foods that link us to the land and to our past. The study of corn, especially, is important to understanding modern meat production, nutrition, the political landscape including energy policy, and food inequities around the world. Corn is the reason great civilizations settled and flourished along the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, reminding us that we are not the first peoples to populate this area.

From a broad historical perspective, consider that our current food supply has fed only one or two generations, and how well it will continue to nourish future generations remains open to question. If you read “The Omnivore’s Dilemna” by Michael Pollan, (which helped launch the current food movement), it is apparent that “we are walking corn people,” and that corn is still “King” today.

King Korn

King Korn

The Squash Family

Pumpkins grow well here, and every year the school is rewarded with a predictably lush pumpkin garden that requires very little attention or care.  Pumpkin vines have prickly stems, and bunnies won’t eat them.  Once, I discovered a very hungry baby bunny trapped inside a fence with several untouched baby pumpkin sprouts. Baby bunnies have no memory, and no sense of taste, so they will eat anything! But they won’t eat baby pumpkin or squash plants.

The Smashing Pumpkins

The Smashing Pumpkins

Pumpkins, and especially anything orange in the squash family, are nutritional powerhouses.  The squash family kept many a hungry settler and native American alive through the hungry month of February, the lean month of March, and that cruelest month of April. In this age of abundance, pumpkins are mostly relegated to decoration, but kids have a wild love for pumpkins, and Jack-o-lanterns are uniquely American creations worth celebrating.

The Three Sisters

Corn, beans and squash are known by first peoples as the “three sisters,” who, together with berries, nuts, game and fish, historically make up the indigenous foods of our area.  In traditional three-sister gardening practice, the corn is planted first, the beans are planted next, to climb up the growing corn stalks, with squash planted last, to cover the ground like a living mulch, providing prickly protection against hungry prowlers. As a post note, there are many “Three Sister” books and demonstration gardens to serve as reference guides these days; not so much just a few short years ago.

We have been able to get corn and pumpkins to grow reliably well at the Family Center, but those silly bunnies get our beans, peas and edamame (soybeans) every time.  Would it horrify the community to teach kids to chase away crows, bunnies and squirrels, which is the traditional job of children, and their natural instinct anyway? I think we’re not quite there yet.

Three Sisters – and a Brother?

In 2007, we planted a simple three-sister garden inside an old tire at the Orange Rooms.  (It is the Europeans, especially our German ancestors, who like to plant in neat straight rows. In native or indigenous practice, a circle is the traditional shape.) By the end of summer, the corn, beans and pumpkins grow so profusely that the old tire becomes barely noticeable.  This is a simple garden project any school can pursue with a minimum of expense, expertise or effort, incorporating any number of learning objectives while making an amusing comment on our current lifestyle. To the best I can determine from a fair amount of research, tires are typically made from rubber and are remarkably stable, therefore providing little threat of migrating “bad-for-you” chemicals which breakdown from plastic and leach into food.

Food Glorious Food

After one Indian Summer

After one Indian Summer

Food is quite valuable, and compelling not only to children and their families, but also particularly interesting to vandals, bunnies, insects and squirrels.  Indigenous foods long ago developed strategies adapted to our local climate and creatures; so with limited time and resources at one’s disposal, indigenous foods make good sense for public school gardens. Different regions of the country will be presented with different indigenous foods, and different growing conditions, so beware these pretty pictures on the internet, which are floating freely in space, and are thereby severed from their true sense of place. Do your research to determine the indigenous foods of your region, and start from there.

Tomato Treasures

Treasures from the Garden

Treasures from the Garden

Tomatoes, especially cherry tomatoes, grow well at the Family Center, because bunnies do not molest them, and our gardens are located too far from the safety of the big trees the squirrels call home.   The children love the pleasure of picking cherry tomatoes, which they hunt for, like hidden treasures among the leaves.  Just three cherry tomato plants can feed a whole preschool classroom, and since cherry tomatoes don’t need to be sliced, they can easily be incorporated into classroom snack time.  Getting what we grow into the school kitchen is a consideration, as popcorn is a choking hazard for small children, foods that must be cooked are challenging to fit into a busy and short preschool morning, and sharp knives are not particularly suitable for young children, (although they might be for older children).

Those Famous Heartland Tomatoes

Better nutrition, fine motor skill development, visual discrimination, sharing opportunities and counting exercises are just a few of the lessons offered by incorporating cherry tomatoes into our playgrounds and into the classroom curriculum.  As a side note, I enjoy the fact that we are famous for our tomatoes here in the Heartland, giving us a unique edge over the land of milk and honey, in at least one department.

Green Caviar

2007-10-30 in the green caviar gardenOne year, none of our tomatoes turned red, so just before a big frost in nearly November, the Blue Room picked all the green tomatoes, and in the famous “Green Caviar” project, asked the parent community to come up with a recipe.  Turning lemons into lemonade, a “Green Caviar” recipe bubbled up from the Russian friend of an Israeli mother.  The children picked the tomatoes, chopped the tomatoes, and mixed the tomatoes with other ingredients to make the famous “Green Caviar.”  The Green Caviar was served for snack, after which the parents got to take a sample home. Cooking projects happen inside the classroom, where the Nature Educator plays a supporting role, with teachers taking the lead.  Proper hand washing and not sneezing into the bowl are only two things to consider when preparing food for the whole class to share.

Not quite Sunset magazine

Working with young children in the garden and in the kitchen is very different from working with adults or even older children in the garden, and standard magazine gardening practices do not apply.  Traditional raised beds look a lot like sandboxes to small children, and toddlers in other classes can’t resist climbing in and crawling around fresh dirt, quickly destroying all the hard work that has just been done.  Signage is pulled from the ground, and thrown around, just for fun; and plants are willfully pulled from of the ground.  One determined toddler can accidentally pull a whole tomato plant out of the ground while trying to pick a single tomato.

Don’t fence me in

Fencing bunnies out has the unintended consequence of fencing children out, and in a world that blindly takes ever more wild space away from children, it is best to avoid the cost, maintenance and hazards of fencing if possible.  Sharp fence corners hover dangerously close to toddler eye level, and in my view, present a hazard worth avoiding.

Small is still beautiful

Small is still beautiful

Small is still beautiful

Working with the “micro” theme, and creatively trying new things all the time, we have met with unexpected success by building very small raised beds, closer to the 2’ x 2’ size.  For some reason, the kids, and baby bunnies, are reluctant to step inside these boxes.  Instead of fences, we simply raise the beds higher than a bunny can hop, to the children’s eye-level, with container barrels.   Because schools and gardens operate on opposite schedules, we are finding success with spring shoulder season crops, which can be planted by children in early spring, maturing before school releases in June.

Bittersweet surrender

Blue * Room * Broccolli

Blue * Room * Broccolli

Who would think that children would love the slightly bitter taste of radish and/or arugula, and yet, when sown and grown in their very own container gardens, the children happily gobble them up in sandwiches. Cabbage butterflies often get our broccoli and cauliflower before we do, but in 2006, we managed to grow enough broccoli to host an impromptu “Broccoli Party.”  Years after the broccoli party, Jordan’s mom turned to me and said, “Oh yes, ever since the broccoli party, Jordan has eaten broccoli whenever I serve it for dinner!”

Harvest Celebrations

When caught up in the spirit of a harvest celebration, children willingly try new foods from the garden.  Rather than allowing the children to harvest from the garden at “will,” we might carefully manage the crop until we have enough to throw a “harvest party” and make a big deal of it, by inviting parents, the classroom community, and of course, the maintenance guys, without whom a harvest would not be possible.  Again, growing food on public school property is a challenge, and we are still working towards our first major “Harvest Party.”

Summer Crops

We’ve had good luck growing cucumbers next to the “Open Times” entrance, because Open Times is running in the early summer when the cucumbers are still maturing.  The vegetable garden next to the Open Times room is a prime location for high maintenance plants, like vegetable gardens, as it is conveniently located next to an easily accessible water supply.  With school facilities increasingly used for summer camps, summer school and other summer programs, we can anticipate the day when schools operate virtually year round, and summer crops will then become a viable option.

Fragile Environments

Failure is good for you!

Failure is good for you!

Vegetable gardens tend to be much more fragile than our native gardens, and there is not much for the children to actually do in a vegetable garden, except look at it, once it is planted.  Additionally, small children are pretty good at planting seeds, but they do not have the fine motor skill required for transplanting tender sprouts, and can accidentally crush eight out of ten plants they transplant. In order to get meaningful food production, transplanting is be better left to parents, with small students allowed to “help.” Vegetable gardens take up a fair amount of space, in exchange for only a few meaningful hours the children get to spend in the garden. (Oh, but those few hours are some of the most thrilling hours in the garden!) On top of that, vegetable gardens tend to get very messy by the end of the summer, (the beginning of the school year), and it is challenging to keep the gardens around our multiple “front doors” presentable, especially in the brutal heat of summer, and during the busy run-up to the first day of school which seems to happen earlier every year.  On top of all that, there are the increased watering demands, and visitations by vandals on weekends.  All of this together presents a fairly high hurdle for growing a few simple vegetables on school property.

The gift of parent involvement

2007-05-30 Alice and JessieThe gift of our vegetable garden came to us through parent Alice, an experienced Science Teacher and Gardener with three small children at home who later became a teacher at the Family Center.  It is Alice’s enthusiasm, energy and experience that enabled us to get the vegetable garden up and going for the benefit of the whole Gay Avenue community. With a butterfly garden regenerating itself, a pumpkin garden to watch over, a front door flower garden to keep presentable, a new herb garden, a “three sisters garden” at the Orange Room, two new butterfly/herb gardens, an eco-literacy garden, three barrel container gardens and a giant Nature Trail project looming in the wings, we had reached the point where the maintenance curve began to overtake new projects, and the added effort offered by just one parent helped us keep ahead of that curve.

Building Teamwork

It is very clear to me that the work required in greening our playgrounds requires a team approach, comprised of teachers, nature educators, administrators, parents, children, maintenance workers, city helpers, teenagers, a variety of nature experts, grandparents and volunteers, all working together in common purpose.  It’s quite a trick to get that many people to play off one sheet of music, but at the Family Center, I do believe it’s starting to sound like music.  This is why it is so important to clarify purpose and story, and work diligently to build a community of “green” workers who are educating themselves and each other about principles, purpose and very best practices.

Building the soil:

Alice brought in trashcan after trashcan of friable UCity compost, while I heaved in untold buckets of compost, worm castings, topsoil and anything else that was as close to free as possible.  I thought about adding vermiculite, but after the guys at Garden Ridge mentioned that “asbestos thing” I couldn’t pull the trigger. Nor did I consider using peat moss, a non-renewable resource; I was happy to hear about that issue many years later from a respected commercial grower.  Cotton burr compost is an option, but cotton is on the receiving end of huge doses of pesticides. See how complicated growing a few vegetables on school playgrounds can get to be?  To grow good vegetables, you need good soil, and that’s the subject of another whole book.  Retail vendors are typically not well versed on organic gardening principles, and as a green librarian, it’s important not to introduce anything harmful to the environment of very small children and their pregnant mothers.

Don’t be scared:

Scary Me

Scary Me

We don’t know much about the effects of pesticides on small children, because obviously, we can’t run pesticide experiments on babies.  What we do know doesn’t seem worth the risk of introducing “bad-for-you” pesticides and soil amendments into an edible school garden.  When it comes to food gardening practices at the Family Center, I confess to being extremely conservative, preferring to follow the Precautionary Principle, avoiding anything that might suggest a potential problem.  (As a post-note five years later, I think it’s interesting that the American Pediatric Association now recommends organic fruits and vegetables for all children; yet with 24% of American children going hungry everyday, we are a far, far cry from meeting the APA’s recommendation.)  By the way, what not to do: don’t put scarecrows up at preschools, it just scares the children.

Black Gold

I am somewhat embarrassed to confess that the soil has never been properly tested at the Family Center gardens, because we get so frightfully overwhelmed by busy spring school calendars.  The big worry, of course, is always lead contamination, but there is no historical evidence to lead me to believe we have any contamination issues on the Gay Avenue campus whatsoever, and I have photos of the Family Center originating as farm land.

Mostly, we have compacted construction clay soil that needs to be “fluffed up” so that air circulation, water and worms can make their way through it, nourishing the roots. It is easy to underestimate the amount of work required to get even a small school garden ready for its first planting season, and protecting every inch of topsoil should be a national security priority.  Topsoil is a non-renewable resource, and it’s floating down the Mississippi river at an alarming rate, primarily due to industrial farming practices. Surprisingly, this could be our biggest environmental problem in the end.

Working in a Sustainable Way

Building the soil is strenuous but critically important work, and we have no way of counting how many teachers, parents, worms or children dug and amended the soil, in the giant soup-like making process that is continually required in order to condition poor school construction soil for planting.  Although it is true that a two-stroke tiller is faster than a pitchfork, a pitchfork does not pollute the air with noise or emissions, and a two stroke engine is not easily put aside for a few moments to chat with a new mother coming out the Open Times room with three small children in tow. The children can help when there is a pitchfork around, and a tiller only brings us more quickly to that fateful day when maintenance chores completely overwhelm the ability to chase new garden dreams.  It’s not only a green and sustainable outcome we’re after, we want to work in a way that is sustainable, and even rejuvenating, for all.  We all grow new muscles getting gardens ready for their first year of planting, and both hands and hearts are pressed to service.

See How They Grow

With Alice’s expertise, and under Elizabeth’s direction as lead teacher, the whole school planted seeds under grow lights to watch them grow.  The seeds were selected, planted, and marked with a stick; and for many years now, every child in the school plants a few seeds and watches them grow indoors while we impatiently wait for it to warm up outside.  Watching seeds germinate is incredibly exciting for the children, and I confess, surprisingly  delightful for teachers as well.  I once read that seeds germinate faster under the high frequency notes of bird song, and I observe that seeds germinate faster when they are closer to the high piping voices of happy children as well. It could be a coincidence, but who knows?

Teachers as experts

The classroom teachers can speak more eloquently about the seedling project as a whole, about the indoor inquiry process, and about the beautiful and elegant materials used by the children and teachers to document and reveal the learning. We have so many authentic nature projects happening inside every classroom, that a one-hour-per-day Nature Educator has no hope of keeping up, and that’s a good thing.  Our respective roles as teachers and resource specialists inform and complement each other in a fluid variety of ways, depending on the people, the project and the time of year.

Failure is good for you!

We transplanted twelve kinds of seedlings into the vegetable garden that first year, but by the end of the summer, everything had been trampled, burned up, or eaten by bunnies, (except for the tomatoes, which showed up later in the “Green Caviar” project.)  It is often the case that in exchange for our hard work, we are greeted by failure, for a variety of reasons, many of them far beyond our control.  Without an understanding that even experienced gardeners suffer their fair share of “failures,” a new gardener can easily become discouraged and give up.  What separates the “green thumbs” from the “brown thumbs” is simply a willingness to seek out new information, combined with a dogged persistence not to give up. Simply put, good gardeners are good learners.  Our families visibly perk up and experience a sense of comfort and confidence when a Green Teacher freely admits to his/her fair share of failures.

Easier than parenting

Learning to garden is not nearly as difficult as learning how to parent, and gardening information, classes and workshops are easy to find in our area. We are lucky to live in close proximity to the world-class Missouri Botanical Gardens, which serves our fair city as a valuable green resource.  As well, our families are incredibly fortunate to have access to the first-class Family Center, with its diverse array of quality parenting programs.  Like parenting, the work of gardening and greening our world is never really finished, and the product is not nearly as important as the process.  And like children, we learn little from our successes, but much from our “failures.”

Baby Turtles

Intellectually, a green librarian program makes it easy for parents to have access to the best new ideas in both the parenting and sustainable education fields.  Emotionally, the point is not so much to find a solution, but rather to continue to find a way to engage with the work of greening our communities. As a Sustainable Educator, an hour per day of meaningful work is enough to dispel the dreadful sense of despair brought on by too much knowledge about what is happening to our natural world. As a parent, gardens are nice places to make lots of mistakes, and give our children practice handling failure and disappointment.  As Catherine likes to say,  “Many baby turtles are born, but few make it to the sea.”   We try out many ideas, in many ways, and make a point to celebrate the few ideas that actually succeed.  Many many acorns fall to the ground, and only a few become mighty oak trees.

Kitchen Garden

As our Open Times vegetable garden has progressed, I wonder if we have the beginning of what might be called a “Potager Garden.”  A Potager Garden is a word from our French heritage meaning “kitchen garden,” where everything is thrown together in artful arrangement: flowers, food and herbs.  Again, we look to the enduring past to find our way forward.  In a “Kitchen Garden,” one simply runs outside to snip a few flowers for the “kitchen” table, perhaps herbs for today’s tea, or cucumbers for today’s snack.  Flowers attract the attention of mothers and bees, herbs are hardy and beneficial in multiple ways, and a few vegetables add wonder and excitement to the garden in spring and fall when school is in session.

Space: the final frontier

A small rounded fence guides children’s feet, and open space in the middle allows children to enter into the garden, without destroying it, to be surrounded by its wonder and delight.  In our rush to fill our time and places with meaningful experiences for our children, it is important to remember that space and emptiness are equally important ingredients in life, as taught by nature, and I find our gardens work best if at least 25-30% of each garden is dedicated to empty space for the children to gather and work, or just play and be.

Matching vision and reality

In short, after years of limited success in working with food crops, it is pretty clear that our collective vision does not quite match the reality on the playground.  And since it is considerably easier to change our vision than to change the weather, we have some educational and intellectual work to do.  From my calculations on the back of paper napkins, as well as from many Dixie cup experiments in the garden, it does not seem practical to come anywhere near providing school lunch from our Mid-Western semi-urban playgrounds. It does make sense get very clear on exactly what we are after with regards to the food link, and that might take a few more years of earnest dialogue, collaboration and experimentation.  I am pretty sure, however, that, as schools, we are in the business of education, and not in the business of food production, and the pursuit of learning and understanding is where we ought to spend our precious and limited time and money.

Inspiration and Perspiration

Because the integral work with the food link is happening inside the classroom, rather than out in the gardens, we should let the gardens inspire our work, rather than drive the work.  The pumpkin butter, pesto making and radish sandwich projects are good examples how to take easy-to-grow foods, and demonstrate to our children and community how to grow and how to cook with seasonal foods.  Our population is very likely to enjoy programs that involve learning new family friendly recipes that are tied to the earth. Picking a few herbs from the garden and adding them to our spaghetti sauce in the kitchen is authentic enough to inspire real learning and life long interest.

Creating Partnerships

In exploring the food link, we might consider joining a CSA, (a community supported agriculture program), or partnering with local farmers to explore local foods and recipes with our families. In this photo we are at the Clayton Farmer’s Market, presenting Clayton Mayor Linda Goldstein with the gift of a dinner made from cherry tomatoes and basil grown at the Family Center, an event that celebrates our city’s green initiatives, our school gardens and our local organic Farmer’s Market in one fun and easy hour on a beautiful Saturday morning.

Reweaving the food web:

Hosting children’s food festivals, sponsoring cooking demonstrations, importing chefs, or selling cherry tomatoes, pickles, salsa or popcorn (as we have done with the Orange Room kids on the High School campus) are all ways in which we can help to reweave our local food web.  A permanent community garden will hopefully find it’s natural home after school construction settles down in a few years; and a community garden on each school site will attract knowledgeable elders, immigrants and extra helping hands to school gardens. Indeed, when pursuing the food link, creating a community garden, and policies to go along with it, would be the first order of business.

Field trips are another joyful and rather effortless way to explore our food connection, compared to trying to grow and defend strawberries ourselves. Fortunately, with Catherine, a certified “Foodie,” now at the helm of the Nature Program, it will be exciting to see how the food link evolves at the Family Center as I move on to other pursuits.


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