Recent marketing data has shown that there has been an upsurge this year in families planting vegetable gardens. Hard economic times have been leading more of us back to the backyard garden. In tough times, backyard gardens make a lot of sense, but they make sense for more than financial reasons. Many children have never had experience with where food comes from.
A by-product of less and less time outdoors, a trend for many U.S. families, is that fewer children get first-hand experience with food sources. In days past, more of us had backyard gardens or visited a farm of family members or friends. We may have gotten to pick apples from the tree or ground, collect eggs from the hen house, or harvest beans off the plants. Today, many children only experience food coming from a grocery store.
Reconnecting our children to food’s origins can build their conceptual understanding of food sources, while also providing an opportunity to talk about healthy eating and learn about the environmental implications of growing organically or transporting food long distances. Here are a few suggestions to introduce these ideas to your children:
Plant your own garden which can be as small or large as you would like. Even having one cherry tomato plant in a container on your porch or patio gives your child a chance to experience the growing and harvesting cycle. Some regions sponsor community or urban gardens where several families who don’t have gardening space can farm a small plot together.
Join a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) group. Many farms now offer locally grown, often organic, foods by subscription. A family purchases a “share” of a local farm and receives a bag or box of fresh fruits and veggies that they pick up each week. Purchasing shares help guarantee the farmer’s subsistence and the food is seasonal and fresh off the farm. The pick-up place for the vegetables is often the farm itself. This can become a fun and educational experience for your children. The foods each week may include some you or your children have never seen before like turnips, kale, or red beets; but learning more about these foods can become a family educational adventure. Some CSAs also offer opportunities to work on the farm.
Visit the local farmers' market with your children. While your children probably won’t get to see where the actual food is grown, they will typically see unpackaged foods and some foods they are unfamiliar with. They may even get to talk to the farmer.
Consider eating one “seasonal” meal each week. This would mean only using fruits and vegetables that are in season, not grown in different climates and not shipped from far away. If you shop at farmers' markets or join a CSA, this is easy, because they only carry seasonal items. Older children might enjoy making a chart of when their favorite fruits and vegetables are available locally and can look forward to their purchase.
Go to http://www.localharvest.org/ for a listing of CSAs and farmers' markets in your area as well as for additional information about organic food and related topics.
For more fun ideas on making the trip to the farmers' market or to pick up your CSA share interesting for your child(ren), read more below:
Encourage conversations between your child and the farmer. Older children can keep a market journal. Questions to ask:
- Where is your farm located?
- What kind of tomato/lettuce/etc. is this?
- When was this vegetable/fruit picked?
- What produce will you have next week?
Engage young children using their senses:
- What does the vegetable/fruit feel like? Is it bumpy or smooth? Is it hard or soft?
- What does the vegetable/fruit look like? What color is it? What shape?
- What does the vegetable/fruit sound like when you tap it? Is it hollow? Does it sound like a drum?
- What does the vegetable/fruit smell like? Does it have a strong smell or no smell?
- What does the vegetable/fruit taste like? Do you think it will be juicy or dry? Sweet or salty? Let’s go home and give it a taste.
Create a Market Scavenger Hunt:
- Create a grocery list before going to the market.
- Have your child help locate the items on the list.
- Use check marks or stickers to show the item as complete.
- Consider a “freebie” square for an item that the child can pick.
Allow children to experience many different markets:
- Talk about the differences and similarities between each.
- Older children can add this to their farmers' market journal.
- Find markets with children’s entertainment or educational events.
- Meet friends for a play date or picnic at the market.
Reinforce the learning at home:
- Have children compare produce from the grocery store with produce from the farmers’ market. Do they look the same? Feel the same? Smell the same? Taste the same?
- Create a “food map.” Using a world or U.S. map, highlight regions by category. Have children mark on the map where the produce they eat in a week comes from. (NOTE: By law, all stores need to label the Country of Origin for all produce).
Green: nearby region/state
Yellow: surrounding area/region
Blue: inside U.S.
Red: outside U.S
- For younger children, read books about planting and farming.
- Help children plant and care for their own vegetable plant.
Older children can help select recipes and help prepare a salad or larger meal from fruits and vegetables they helped select at the farmers' market or from your own garden or CSA.