When I met Amber at a Ketchum media training the day before the BlogHer Food Conference in San Francisco, I instantly knew she was a kindred spirit! She is in touch with the earth and where her food comes from, and loves working with kids to excite them about the benefits of becoming a locavore. I loved this story of her experience planting seeds with students as Farmer GreenBeet…
My pockets are overflowing with carrots and seed packets. As I walk through the school playground, children’s heads turn. A ball that’s being tossed is abandoned. Ropes stop skipping. Tiny feet begin to run toward me and eyes start twinkling with excitement.
“Farmer GreenBeet!” they exclaim, each child trying to outrun the others to reach me first.
It’s a bright California day, and I’m visiting a low-income school to teach kids—and parents—about planting seeds. I already know the research. School gardens work to teach children about nutrition and to improve health. Kids from violent homes learn to nurture when they must care for the growth of a plant—a skill they likely won’t develop at home. Children are also more likely to eat the vegetables they grow themselves—a powerful tool in the fight against obesity.
But I know that kids don’t want to hear this. They just want to have fun! And frankly, so do I.
So earlier that morning, before I leave home, I don a patched pair of old blue jeans that my dad used to wear in our family garden. I throw on a green sweatshirt and a cowgirl hat. It’s not quite over-the-top enough, so I add the finishing touch: oodles of carrots, seed packets, and fennel fronds bursting from every pocket. There! Now I look like a character any child could love.
Now at the school, I have only 30 minutes with each group of kids—K through 5. It’s not long, but we use the time wisely.
First, I tell them that I’m a backyard farmer. I explain that you don’t need to have a big farm to grow your own vegetables.
I ask what the kids want to be when they grow up. Hands shoot into the air. Some of the kids want to be doctors or policeman. A few want to be spies. And lots of them want to be farmers “just like you, GreenBeet!”
“In fact,” I tell them, “we’re going to grow some vegetables right here at school and you can all be farmers!” Cheers burst from the crowd.
I ask the kids what their favorite vegetables are. Some of the younger ones confuse their fruits and their vegetables. But they all have a favorite. And like a vegetable cheerleader, I get excited by every answer they give me. I let every child share. They are smiling ear to ear.
I ask the kids if they know the four things plants need to grow healthy. They’re pretty smart, and with minimal coahing they guess correctly: sun, water, air, and soil. We talk about bugs that plants love like worms, bees, and butterflies. I already know that the teacher has plans to incorporate a coloring activity about these bugs in her class.
My favorite part of the presentation comes to me on a whim. The kids are asking if they can eat the carrots in my pockets. I don’t have enough for everyone. But I do have plenty of fennel fronds. I tear off pieces of the leaf and begin handing them to each reaching hand.
“What is it?” they ask.
“Taste it,” I suggest. “What does it taste like?”
They pop the furry leaves in their mouths and chew. They are contemplating quietly.
“Black licorice?” a boy calls out from the back of the circle.
“Exactly!” I exclaim, proud as punch with my idea. Giggles burst from the children and they start squirming in their seats.
“Can I have some more?” one child asks.
“Ooh, me too!” another calls out
They love this tasty green—nature’s black licorice. I can only imagine the shocked looks on their parents’ faces when they arrive home that night and ask to have fennel for dinner. “Farmer GreenBeet says we can get it at the farmers’ market,” I can hear them chime.
Now, as promised, I must make them all farmers. The school has prepared two raised beds with soil in a protected corner of the playground. A few weeds have taken over. I point them out to the children and demonstrate how to pull them out by their roots. Instantly, like a chicken pecking at bugs in the dirt, small fingers pluck every last weed. They love it!
Next, I let each child choose the vegetable seed of their choice: spinach for one kid, onions for another. Someone asks if he can plant a pear, and I explain that those grow on trees. I place itty bitty seeds into sticky hands, and the children gingerly press them into the dirt.
When the watering hose comes out, the fun really begins! The seeds are watered, and so are children. The teachers must intervene to keep the party from becoming too raucous. Turns out this vegetable growing stuff is a hoot!
A few weeks later, I return to the school during a weekend celebration. There’s a band, games, and me. I’m there to help kids plant seeds that they can plant in their yards. Everyone wants to introduce their mom, dad, or grandma to Farmer GreenBeet. And it turns out the parents are just as interested in growing vegetables as the kids are. As the children look at the seed packet pictures of vegetables and herbs ranging from basil and cilantro to tomatoes and watermelon, their parents are whispering in their ears, “Pick the basil!” or “How about a pepper?” or “Sandia!”
“Parents can play, too!” I say, and push a stack of seed packets in their direction.
“Really?!” they exclaim, almost as adamantly as the children.
“I’ve got plenty for everyone,” I assure them.
Some parents take two. Some kids come back and ask if they can plant more. They are all eager to go home and grow their own food, and I’m happy to give as much as they can carry. The parents ask me questions about bees and soil and watering. They repeat the information back, making sure they have it all right. I can tell by their enthusiasm that they’ll go home and plant those seeds today.
It doesn’t take much to engage a curious child—or parent—in growing their own food. And rest assured, if they’ve grown it themselves, they are going to want to eat it. If you make it fun, show a little enthusiasm, and become a cheerleader for vegetables, children of all ages will want to participate.
If you want to start planting seeds with children, I’ve got a great how-to that uses nothing more than recycled newspaper and potting soil to help get kids started. This time of year in California, you can grow spinach, cilantro, and parsley. And year-round, you can grow herbs like basil inside on your windowsill.
Byline: Amber K. Stott, aka Backyard Farmer GreenBeet, lives and gardens in Sacramento, California. She writes the blog Awake at the Whisk, an online guide to conscious eating that’s healthy for you and healthy for the planet.
Do you have a tale to tell about growing food or cooking with kids?
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