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.
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.
Mrs. Webster’s Pre-K class recently enjoyed their day in the dirt. Tables were placed just outside the classroom with a wheelbarrow full of soil and some buckets of water standing by. One student, before the festivities, was overheard telling Mrs. Webster that he didn’t like getting dirty. Mrs. Webster just smiled. Behold the power of mud. It was no time before little hands and big imaginations dug in to create oatmeal and chocolate milk, cookie dough and pizza pies. Chocolate seemed to be a theme on the menu and it turns out everything tastes better with a garnish of grass clippings.
It may seem that these children are only having fun, but there is an underlying lesson. It’s a subtle message but one that is fundamental. Soil is the source of all that we eat. The sooner we can introduce this to children (even through play) the more likely they will value healthy real food and respect the process that brings it from that source to their table. In the mean time, bon appetit!
Time runs from us. It usually takes off in a sprint while we’re looking the other way. Moments quickly pass through our fumbling fingers and we rarely take notice. We’re drawn to details that seem permanent and ageless because they help distract us from the uncomfortable ticking clock. In reality though, building our lives around this distraction is a trap of denial. You can’t stop that clock, no more than you can stop that beautiful sunset. Ironically, part of what makes that sunset so great is that it runs away and doesn’t last. It’s unfortunate that we sometimes associate the temporal with the disposable. We question the value of things that don’t last. In our disposable culture that’s usually a reasonable question, but a sunset is not a paper plate. A melting snowflake is not a plastic fork. The natural world is full of the temporal that calls our attention to time not away from it. For some, the seasons are a drastic reminder of how nature seems to celebrate time. Floridians, however, have to look a little closer. So much of our landscapes here have been designed to appear unchanging. While pursuing the holy grail of the “maintenance-free yard”, we have wound up with an environment that looks pretty much the same in January as it does in July. What a shame. The passage of time should be celebrated. Poppies can help. They don’t last. Look the other way and you’ll miss the party.
The teachings of Jesus are full of references to the natural world. Much of the spiritual and abstract truths he shared were explained by comparing them to simple, physical experiences that were part of daily life. One example of this kind of teaching is found in the Gospel of John. Jesus points to a vine. Jesus was trying to give his disciples an understanding of their relationship to him and his heavenly father. No doubt, the disciples were confounded by much of what Jesus had to say about this relationship, but surely this illustration gave them comfort. Through this metaphor they could see that they were part of something greater than themselves and that there was one who cared for them, one who challenged and disciplined them for their own fruitful benefit. Pointing to a vine doesn’t answer all the questions. It doesn’t fill in all the blanks, but it does give an understanding. It opens a window. It encourages discovery. Thousands (maybe millions) of sermons have been inspired by this text, not because it is definitive or conclusive but because it allows the inconceivable to be recognizable and even a little familiar. Jesus is a vine. How unsacred. We are its branches. How comforting.
This week, our eighth grade students learned how and why our grape vines are pruned. They also learned about a divine relationship. After scripture was read to the sound of clippers, the conversation alternated between botanical and spiritual. It wasn’t definitive about either. We have a lot to learn about grapes and even more to learn about our relationship to God, but by comparing them we got to know each of them a little better.
Dropping a seed into a pot is pretty easy. Transplanting the seedling that results is a bit more of a challenge. These third grade students were up to the task.