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.
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.
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.
You must be thinking this is a stretch. It isn’t really. Aside from the obvious questions about where watermelons originated and the climatic and seasonal requirements necessary to grow these vines successfully, there is an interesting opportunity to use a melon to discuss our planet’s shape and how it’s surface is portrayed in maps. Many times students overlook the subtle but significant differences between globes that sit on a table and flat maps that hang on a wall. Anytime a three-dimensional object is portrayed in a two-dimensional medium, distortion is inevitable. To highlight this distortion students were asked to first draw the continents on small cantaloupes (a surprising challenge very different from drawing them on a sheet of flat paper). These will later be sliced into sections and eaten. The skins will then be spread out on a flat surface to see how this changes our perception of the drawings. A few students were asked to wrap a flat sheet of paper around a watermelon and find the necessary alterations that must be made to the paper to avoid any over lapping surfaces. This was an interesting task as these students had just come from math class where they had been using this same watermelon to discuss the measurement of surface areas. Now they were thinking of this surface area as a map of Planet Watermelon.
We don’t often think of math as a form of communication. Words, not numbers, are usually the first to come to mind when we think of sharing information or ideas. For instance, when we want to tell someone about a newly harvested watermelon many adjectives spring to mind: sweet, juicy, fat, red, striped, delicious etc.. However as soon as we say “bigger than a bread box” we are, even subconsciously, using math as a way to describe or communicate information about our watermelon. Obviously, a bread box is hardly a consistent unit of measurement but it instantly tells you something about our success by way of mathematical comparison .
As part of our Watermelon Math lesson we challenged our upper grade students to think about numerical ways of describing these fruits and using standard units of measurement to communicate their findings. Estimation was a great way to start this exercise. Having students guess, often builds momentum for discovery. It is challenging to describe the chaotic energy of these students as they worked and it’s difficult to measure the “light bulb” moments in kilowatts. They may not remember the formulas they used or the numbers they calculated but hopefully, more importantly, they will think differently about the concepts of circumference, surface area, weight and volume. They will probably think differently about watermelons as well.
Many might say, “Do you really need a watermelon for this exercise?”. Of course not, but if you’ve never brought watermelons into a middle school classroom (which has been watching those melons swell for the last month) you are really missing something. It kind of makes you feel sorry for those poor students who are stuck with measuring styrofoam spheres.