It’s not surprising that many of life’s most valuable lessons only get half learned. It is simply too easy to divert to a different path rather than follow anything to it’s conclusion. Never have there been so many forks in life’s road. Food lessons are no different. The term “seed to plate” may be on the verge of being overused to the point of meaninglessness but it’s philosophy, which challenges our short attention span, is just beginning to get traction. Looking at the food on our plates and tracing that food’s path back to a point of origin (soil) can be mind boggling. For some, even considering that journey is an epiphany. School gardens not only encourage kids to think about that journey, they invite them to embark on it. By planting a seed and committing to its growth, students learn first hand what it means to bring food to the table. For some foods, a “seed to plate” experience isn’t that much of a challenge. Cherry tomatoes are pretty easy except that many don’t even make it to the kitchen, much less a plate. Some foods require a bit more tenacity. Our last post covered the wheat grown by Mrs. Madrid’s first graders. This morning some of that wheat was finally ground into flour and made it to the plate in the form of pasta.
(Full disclosure: Much of our wheat is still green and not quite ready to harvest and Friday is the last day of school. Bummer. So even though we harvested some of our grain and included it in our recipe, our ingredients were supplemented by a bag of spelt berries.)
These first graders KNOW now what it takes for a seed of wheat that they planted in the fall to wind up as pasta on a plate in the spring. They have imagined it, seen it, smelled it, touched it, and this morning, tasted it. And it was good. All of it.
Encouraging students to strengthen and stretch their anticipation muscles is one of the primary functions of a school garden. Nature’s gratification is rarely instant but positive experiences in a garden, over time can provide a gratifying sense of accomplishment and satisfaction that is rarely equalled. This can also build patience. Everyone loves a patient child (or adult for that matter) but building patient children is difficult work. It is a delicate balance of challenging students just a bit beyond their comfort, but not so far beyond it that they lose heart and give up.
In the case of Mrs. Madrid’s winter wheat, we almost pushed it too far. From a first grader’s perspective, the time between Halloween and Mother’s Day nears eternity, but this is about how long it took for our winter wheat to reach maturity. Keeping first graders interested in watching grass grow for seven months was no small feat. Mrs. Madrid persevered. On a consistent basis this patience building teacher led her class out to the garden to observe and celebrate the slightest development. Even more frequently she sent two students out to water and report back to their classmates. Occasionally she accompanied her friends out to the garden just for a fresh air reset. Regardless, she was always encouraging these children that yes, in time, the harvest would come. And now…. finally… it has. Now, the possibility of pasta from scratch, from serious scratch is at our fingertips.
Maybe it’s a little cruel to make kids wait so long, (We definitely will add more faster growing plants to the first grade syllabus next year.) but they did it. They waited. They cared. They didn’t lose interest. They were patient. And soon, (very soon) spaghetti will never have tasted so good.
If we think of life as a track and field event, it’s easy to see ourselves as long distance runners; bolting out of the starting blocks and leaping over hurdles that challenge us on our way to the finish line. To us, life can start to seem very linear. We learn a lesson, experience painful or joyful moments and then “move on”. Clearly in our own lives, things are not like they used to be and tomorrow, they will not be like they are now. The broader picture of life, however, looks a little less like a marathon and a bit more like jump rope. You know the game where two people are twirling a rope and you have to jump in at just the right moment and hop without tripping for as long as you can. In life we leap into a cycle that started long before we showed up and despite our little vanities will continue long after we stumble out. Things keep coming (and going) around and around. In our annual journey circling the sun we see seasons come and go and then come again. All around us nature is reminding its inhabitants that sustainability is tied to renewal. Nowhere is this more evident than in a vegetable garden. I have long railed against the all to typical (and often only) gardening experience provided to so many young children. A bean seed is placed into a styrofoam cup with some store bought potting soil and placed on a windowsill. While the student does get to see the miracle of germination, more often than not they also witness the desperate, fruitless struggle the undernourished and overwatered seedling makes to break through the glass. In a few weeks the row of shriveled remnants are discretely swept into the trash without the class ever seeing what beans were meant to do: make more beans. When a class of pre-k students can receive pea seeds from the previous year’s class, grow them, eat most of their bounty and save some to pass on to next years pre-k’ers, they can start to see themselves as part of a bigger cycle rather just an individual runner on their own road. This is the first year pre-k has saved some of the seed from their harvest for next year’s class. A class of fourth graders helped them pull pods off of their shriveled (but successful) vines. Already, they see themselves as givers in this game of jump rope. Although I don’t expect to see jump rope as an olympic event anytime soon, this rhythmic pastime will continue to remind me that I’m part of something bigger. So will pre-k’ers and their peas.
It would certainly be understandable to associate the term “random sampling” with a Sunday afternoon stroll through the grocery section of Costco. Making a meal out of the treats served in those little paper cups is now part of our cultural norm. What happened with our fourth graders last week, however, was more statistical in nature. After a disheartening attempt to grow cucumbers, these students decided to try planting carrots. Much to their delight, nearly every tiny seed they sprinkled into soil sprouted. So many, that it became obvious some thinning would be necessary. In fact, it appeared that at least half of the seedlings would have to go. While discussing this task at hand, we became curious as to how many seedlings each student would have to pull. (assuming each student would pull the same number) If you have ever thinned seedlings with young fingers you will understand that restraint is a significant factor, so clarity is always a good idea. We quickly concluded that if we were going to calculate how many sprouts would be pulled by each student, we would first need to know how many sprouts we had all together. This would be our “population”. We decided that rather than counting each individual carrot plant we would look at one small patch of the bed, see how many carrots were in that patch, and then determine how many of those patches would fit in our bed. We would then multiply that number by the number of carrots counted in that one patch. It was determined that a six inch square would be a good size and this would be our “sample”. After calculating our total population of carrots, we would divide that number in half since half of the carrots needed to be pulled. We would then divide that number by the number of students to determine how many each student would take out.
If at this point you are starting to lose interest, you would have lots of company from fourth graders in classrooms everywhere who are limited to reading mathematic word problems from a page in a textbook. Try reading aloud some of the above paragraph to a fourth grader and watch as their eyes glaze over. I cannot tell you how different it was to actually do this math problem in the garden. (I could try, but in a few pages your eyes would be the ones glazing over) I can, however, tell you with absolute honesty that this class was having a good time. The best kind of good time. A challenging good time.
I generally consider myself a nature enthusiast. This enthusiasm occasionally borders on obsession, as I am truly fascinated by the natural world and all its complexity. I tend to watch plants and insects the way people used to watch television. Sometimes I go outside just to see what’s “on”. I consider myself enthusiastic, that is, until I stand next to a certain fourth grade boy who has discovered that our garden is nearly overrun with millipedes. In that context I am nothing more than an indifferent casual observer. Millipedes tend to have a strong effect on most kids. Squeals of delight and disgust (they sound suspiciously similar) are often elicited by these lowly creatures. Occasionally however, you come across a kid who responds to finding a millipede under a piece of mulch the way that you or I would respond if we stumbled upon a unicorn in the middle of the Black Forest. Standing next to that kid I am a boring, jaded, old man who is bent on planting beets when clearly there are more interesting things going on out here. “BEETS?” This boy tries to express his complete exasperation but his eyes don’t roll that far. How can he be expected to fumble with beet transplants when there are dozens of millipedes right where he’s standing who obviously are without decent housing. “MILLIPEDES!” – as if they were rare and precious jewels scattered among the Kale. The intensity of this kind of passion is nearly palpable.
I know children have breaking points. Forcing this student to stay with the group and participate begins to look sketchy and honestly, a little heartless, so I bargain. “You plant one beet seedling and you get to build millipede houses for the rest of the time.” One seedling is recklessly thrown into a hole and the boy bolts to the millipede convention. I honestly don’t have much time to think about it. It’s only later when I check out the tiny homes that I’m happy I caved. At first they didn’t look like much, until I realized what they really meant. One boy, along with a couple of his buddies that he pulled along, spent quality time outside on a beautiful fall day, imagining a city out of a handful of little bugs. Crawling around in the mulch, these kids were able to enjoy nature the way that every kid should be encouraged to enjoy nature: eye to eye. Developing an understanding and appreciation for the natural world requires moments like this, preferably during childhood. I doubt this specific activity is required in the fourth grade curriculum standards. It certainly wasn’t on my agenda (maybe next time it will be). There are times, however, when it’s good to let go of a good plan when a better one comes along. Planting beets is a good idea. Falling in love with nature… that is THE idea.
Representing fruits and vegetables in “still life” is a rich and ancient artistic tradition. Countless artists, throughout history and throughout the world, have celebrated the beauty of food by arranging it thoughtfully on a table and capturing its image on canvas. Recently, students at OJA had an opportunity to experience this tradition in their art class. Using produce straight from the garden, they combined scientific, botanical observation with artistic expression. As with many of their projects, they first saw how other artists had approached this subject and used that observation to inspire their own work. Seeing work from historical seed catalogs and even a few contemporary artists rounded out their appreciation for this genre. Our art teacher is gifted at integrating other curriculums into her art program and this day was a good example. By elevating fruits and vegetables (in this case okra, pink-eyed peas, eggplant and watermelon) to subjects of art she sent a subtle but significant message to her young artists. Fresh and healthy food has value beyond nutrition. Sometimes this piece gets lost in the conversation. In our efforts to get kids to eat better we sometimes forget to emphasize the aesthetic experience of food. It is said in the restaurant business that the customer eats first with his eyes. Kids are no exception. Never is it more true that presentation is everything. The road to healthy and pleasurable eating is a journey of a thousand baby steps. This day our students took more than a few as they “ate” with their eyes. Introducing unfamiliar foods (along with some that are already known and loved) in this way gives kids a positive experience that will more than likely affect their perceptions of that food when they encounter it on a plate.
You might think that having kids draw a watermelon isn’t really necessary in getting them to value it. Granted, it’s kind of a low bar for watermelon. Even so we can’t forget that we are living in a world where the industrial food system is trying to convince parents that having a child suck pureed watermelon (along with some other unfortunate concentrated fruits) out of a plasticized foil pouch counts as healthy eating. “Eating” watermelon this way will never compare to the sticky mess of putting your face into a juicy slice of heaven and seeing how far you can spit a seed from the back porch. That is beautiful.
“Art is not what you see, but what you make others see” – Edgar Degas
The beginning of every academic year is a bit like a stumbling sprint. Parents, students and teachers alike find getting back into the groove of school a bit of a challenge. There is a lot to do and there isn’t much time to ramp up. You’ll sharpen your pencil twice and it’s Christmas. A school garden is no exception. If your garden is like ours, you may find August pretty daunting. In Florida, summer heat and rains usually give us an overgrown tangle of vines and weeds as a back to school present. Even with attention over summer break there are some plants that just aren’t ready to be yanked out to make room for the fall and winter crops. If you planted crowder peas, watermelon or sweet potatoes just before school let out in May, these varieties are still going strong when students return. Couple this with the fact that August is the most brutal month to be outside in Florida and you can see why it’s tempting to just look the other way. Fortunately there is something that can be done (even indoors) to get some cool weather plants off to a healthy and timely start. Seeds in pots. At OJA we try to plant the bulk of our winter crops in small pots during the first few weeks of school. This allows us to make a start on the new garden while we let the old garden wind down. We have found that many seeds in the Brassica family (kale, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower etc.) do well when started this way. It might seem premature to start thinking about winter crops now when a trip to the mailbox requires sunscreen, but like I said: “Christmas is coming”. Planting seeds in pots, rather than directly in the ground, offers other advantages as well.
A tray of of potted seedlings is much easier to manage than a twenty-foot row.
It’s much easier to avoid accidentally stepping on a baby cabbage if it’s in a pot.
For some reason slugs and cut worms seem to be deterred by the three inch climb.
Most importantly, planting our first seeds in pots, indoors, buys us time. By mid September the seedlings will need to be transplanted into the ground and the more challenging work of gardening will begin. The garden has already started but we still have time. We still have time to pull out weeds and decide where the beds will be laid out. We still have time to discuss garden protocol and outdoor learning expectations. We still have time to plan, time to imagine. We still have time to get back into the groove of school.
Horizons are often difficult to judge. Sometimes things that seem far away turn out to be just over the next hill while other things that seem to be right at hand wind up being miles away. So it is with time. A deadline that seemed an eternity away is suddenly tomorrow and an idea that appeared so far away, surprisingly pops up into view. The Edible Schoolyard at OJA is experiencing just such: an exciting, long awaited, sudden development. Our team has long believed that our student’s cooking experience could be greatly improved by providing them with a true kitchen classroom. We have felt that the surrounding community might also enjoy this “seed to table” experience. We had faith that there were others who share our belief in edible education and would partner with us to create a vision of something new. This vision is quickly coming into focus in the form of a “kitchen house” and “give back garden”. An idea that once seemed “miles away” is suddenly on our doorstep. Through generous partnerships with Florida Hospital for Children and the Emeril Lagasse Foundation, we are creating an innovative space where students will be given the opportunity to learn about the source of their food. These students will also have a hand in growing and preparing that food, which we believe will inspire a healthier and more delicious lifestyle. Here are some architectural renderings provided by our design team partners, Midtown Architecture Studio and Hunton Brady Architects. Since this project lies on a plot of land across the street from the school our students will not be the only ones able to utilize this facility. Other schools will be invited to enjoy this space as a field trip destination without any compromise to our own campus routine.
This week some of our third graders were able to taste a garden fresh, Brandywine, heirloom tomato for the first time. This particular fruit was the first to ripen from their tomato patch. More are on the way. Brandywines have a long history of being known for their “true tomato” flavor, meaty flesh and unusual shape. This one lived up to that reputation. Whenever we enjoy something from the garden we try to link it to something in the classroom. Once you realize that everything is or can be connected, this isn’t really hard to do. It was decided that when we brought this tomato into the classroom we would also introduce the students to a metric scale. This particular model was a triple beam balance scale, so finding the weight of this trophy was fun and a bit challenging for them. We weighed a couple of other objects first (a big bottle of glue and an apple) and then tried to estimate the weight of the brandywine.
Of course a scale like this is interesting by itself, but when you put a big, red, juicy tomato on it; it is arguably more so. Not surprisingly, when you put a tomato on a novel piece of scientific equipment that tomato becomes more interesting as well. By the time we pulled out the knife and cut into it, kids were literally on the edge of their seats. There was enough for everyone to get a taste. Of course the first bite was free, but the second bite had to be earned by writing a couple of really good sentences in their garden journals. No problem.