A Farmer in the Garden

I recently helped my friend, Josh, plant some seeds and starts on his farmland out in the Northeast Kingdom. Josh’s family has always produced vegetables on their small-scale farm for area farmers’ markets, but this year Josh is running the operation on his own.

When I visited Josh’s land, I got to help him plant some of the usual crops that I have in my small garden: tomatoes, squash, pumpkin, green beans… but the planting process was a little bit different here. Forget the gentle loosening of roots on the tomato starts. Just drop them a couple paces apart for the length of the field and then walk back through and quickly tuck them into the soil a few inches above the roots. And while in my small garden I planted every squash seed with an exaggerated amount of care, here we just opened up a small hole in the soil every three paces, dropped three or four seeds in, and were on our way.

It’s funny how long my friends and I took to plan and decide and gently dig up homes for plants in the small garden plot we have when I compare it to the farmers’ methods. But I guess it’s only fair; any farm must be at least 50 times the size of our garden. It wouldn’t be as big of a deal if two or three tomato plants didn’t survive on the farm since this is such a small fraction of the crop.

While I am not about to move away from the more gentle and tedious methods of the gardener, I’m glad to have a farmer friend as a resource. The next day, when Josh visited our garden, he shook his head when he saw how I, on hands and knees, meticulously plucked out small weeds from a bed of soil I hadn’t planted anything in yet. He grabbed a hoe and we broke up the weeds. I grabbed a small rake and pulled out many of  the larger weeds before scooping some of the smaller pieces up in my hands.

In all reality, the garden isn’t just a place to grow food. It’s a place to relax, work hard, get dirty and watch life grow. So, while the farmer has some shortcuts that will still yield a good crop, I know I’ll continue to take the longer and maybe more laborious route for my miniature field of vegetables. I’ll continue to use my farmer friends as a great resource for planting and pests and so on, but somehow the garden would still feel like a productive use of my time even if it failed to produce much of any food.

The Abandoned Garden

After some frost this weekend, I’m hoping we’re finally over the last leg of cold weather and that I can start planting next weekend. My roommates and I visited our community garden plot yesterday for our own orientation and had a great time chatting about growing plans while we did some weeding. We have some very ambitious plans for our garden… after seeing the size of our 30×20 plot yesterday, we asked our garden coordinator about renting a second plot… LOTS of planting space! Easier said than done I know, so hopefully we can keep up with all the work we have ahead of us.

Glorious piles of packets of seeds!

One of the rules at our community garden is that raised garden beds can be no more than about 8″ higher than the rest of the garden. There are two reasons for this: 1) deep trenches in the garden, if not smoothed back out well enough at the end of the growing season, will be difficult to drive the tiller through come next year… and 2) if the garden gets overgrown because it is abandoned, it will be a safety hazard for those who walk through that space in an attempt to salvage the garden plot.

These rules make sense to me, and, actually, I suppose we still could create some shorter raised beds if we wanted to, but what’s more interesting here is that the garden committee anticipates (and has a plan to deal with) garden abandoners. Garden abandoners… I hadn’t really thought about this – these are the garden renters who seem to disappear mid-season, Continue reading

Schools and Kids’ Health: Take Two

Yesterday, I started to discuss the role of schools in children’s diets. While we see some wonderful school-based programming such as teaching gardens that promote children’s health, is it up to the schools to direct children’s eating habits? I think getting kids to garden is a great idea, and possibly a way to get kids to eat higher-quality diets. But as schools continue to offer programs such as this, and as schools continue to provide a large percentage of children’s daily diets, how responsible should they really be for their students’ health outcomes and dietary habits?

Independence High School's cafeteria during lunch.

Independence High School's cafeteria during lunch. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

More and more, I believe the responsibility for children’s health must fall in the hands of schools. In the right school district, a child now could potentially eat all meals at school… There’s the School Breakfast Program, the National School Lunch Program, snack programs like the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program and the Afterschool Snack Program… and now some schools offer dinner too! On top of that, there may be snack bars, school stores, and vending machines available at school. If a child has so many opportunities to make eating decisions during the school day, Continue reading

Because Packages Make Food Taste Better

Foodies, foodies everywhere! From television programming on the Food Network to lots of gorgeous photos of food from bloggers and magazines, our sensory appreciation of food goes beyond taste and smell. The visual presentation of food – right down to polished silverware and warm lighting to enhance the appearance food textures – can entice us to eat a food.

My own attempt at food photography...

Usually photos of food have this aesthetic that brings to mind flavorful words like fresh, savory, fluffy, decadent, smooth, fragrant, delicate…

So, if this is the food we find so attractive, why might some grade-schoolers also think Continue reading

Local Foods: Slowing Down and School Lunch

Hey, here’s a fun listen: Test Kitchen Radio shares a story about school lunch and the impact of local foods in what children eat! The best part: the program interviews one of the coordinators of the Farm to School program at the Dorset School here in Vermont. Check out the program here (start around minute 14:00).

What I like about this story is Continue reading

Did you say Local or Low-cal?

Bakery Treats at August First

I just ate a super-delicious and decadent cinnamon roll from one of Burlington’s local bakeries, August First. Guilty over-indulgence? Well, maybe, but at least I was supporting a local business. And – hey – it’s made from local ingredients, so it couldn’t have been so bad for me…

Cinnamon roll was here...

…Tell me I’m not the only person who has gone through this kind of thought process: you justify a poor food choice just because the food is made from local ingredients.

While many of us might associate eating locally with purchasing or growing our own fresh produce, there are plenty of other foods we can also eat locally. I have recently been visiting a few of my favorite places in downtown… Last night, I ordered a pepperoni pizza from Flatbread. This morning, I stopped into August First Bakery for a cinnamon roll. While I don’t know what was local about my foods, attractive signs like these make me suspect that at least some of the ingredients in my dinner and breakfast were local:

So, here I am, purchasing all sorts of good local goodness, but have I been eating healthy, balanced meals? Yikes no!

The point I’m trying to make is that labels can have this ‘halo effect’ on our perception of how healthy our meals are. Brian Wansink and his team at the Food and Brands Lab at Cornell have been performing all sorts of elegant experiments to prove this.

For instance, Wansink showed that two groups of people fed the same fast-food taco salad made dramatically different estimations about the number of Calories they were eating; when the salad was falsely labeled as if it were catered from a natural foods café, people thought the salad was way lower in Calories! (Here’s a fun read summarizing some of Wansink’s findings, and a more recent study on the effects of food labels on food choices.)

Surprise! Our decisions about how good a food tastes or how healthy it is are not always made as rationally as we’d guess. Instead, we rely on expectations based on things as trivial as a label. Ever thought a food was better for you only because it said it was ‘farm fresh’ or ‘locally produced?’

So what does this have to do with kids playing around in the garden? In recent years, many schools have been adopting school gardens, often in conjunction with the Farm to School program. One goal of Farm to School is to build meaningful connections to foods grown in the community – whether it’s by hanging out with a farmer, providing education about how food is grown, or offering a hands-on lesson in the garden. The hope is that these activities will result in better eating habits. While locally grown food is oftentimes fruits and veggies, could we mistakenly be telling kids that anything local is healthy?

While I was hoping to hear people at Flatbread and August First justify their food choices based on what was local, I didn’t, and it could be that this is a decision we’re making internally – even on a more subconscious level. But can you think of a time you might have fallen for the label trick: ever caught yourself over-valuing a food just because it was made locally?

WP 4/6

Signs, Signs, Everywhere There’s Signs

Burlington has no beef with pink slime, but are the kids aware? (Read this if you’re out of the loop on the debate about pink slime in school lunch beef)

Dansk: Hakket oksekød English: Ground beef

As the local food movement continues to gain momentum across the country, people are ever more interested in knowing where their food comes from… but local food isn’t always promoted clearly. While 42% of Middlebury College students mistakenly thought the majority of meat served in their dining program was locally sourced (less than 1% actually is), while I bet many students in the Burlington School District have no idea that their lunch program now purchases thousands of pounds of local beef each year. Wow! How do we get the word out?

This hot topic of ground beef quality and pink slime sounds like a bit of a tangent to kids’ gardening programs, but here’s what they all have in common: these programs are all looking (and sometimes lacking)the clear communication to explain their successful efforts. Can some simple, homemade signs help?

During a recent meeting at Friends of Burlington Gardens, the conversation jumped rapidly between planning several summer programs and activities, but the discussion seemed to cycle around this chorus: We need to make good signs for that.

The song went something like this:

  • Want to make children learning to speak English more comfortable in the garden? Let’s make some signs in the gardens for various plants that are written in different languages.
  • Want to make students more aware of the greenhouse activities at their high school and encourage them to join? How about we put up signs around campus to say what we’re doing? Let’s have some artsy students come up with a sign and maybe a motto we can display outside the greenhouse.
  • Want to show the community the flourishing school garden in its prime? We should get lots of good signage…I wonder who has nice handwriting?

A wealth of signs piled in the closet at FBG

Signs are essential for communicating what’s happening in the land of garden education – they can decorate the garden site and give kids a way to contribute – but they also can be a marketing tool used to recruit students and showcase successes for the community. While the cardboard signs handwritten in marker and those hand-painted wooden signs might be kind of old-school, I think they’re an appropriate way to deliver these messages. Tweeting to the world or putting up a Facebook page about the garden might happen too, but simple signage is intimate and personalized for the immediate community. What are the ways that members of your local food system get the message out about the good work they’re doing? Are handmade signs part of their marketing toolkit?

FN 4/2

The Organic-versus-Conventional Debate

Community gardening and organic practices can go hand-in-hand. In several of the garden spaces available in my city, restrictions have been placed on growing practices to avoid the use of pesticides, herbicides, and genetically-modified seeds. But how important is it that my community garden support organic gardening?

Being an organic gardener myself, I wanted to see what arguments have been made opposing organic growing. Interested in the angle of conventional and GM-supporting farmers, I looked to the corporation that epitomizes anti-organic: Monsanto.

The Miracle-Maker

In a short article on the Monsanto website titled, “Building a World Without Hunger,” the author, Monsanto Executive Communications Manager Rachel Thimangu, reports on a panel discussion during the Milken Institute Global Conference which considered the role of organic farming in the larger scheme of addressing world hunger. Thimangu quotes Dan Glickman, former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, weighing in on the debate of organic versus conventional:

” ‘[You’ve] got to have technologies that allow additional production…That means you’ve got to not be afraid of technology.

‘We’re going to have community gardens. We’re going to have a lot of food grown locally. But, overwhelmingly, that’s not going to solve the problem of hunger in this world. We’ve got to produce more food.’ “

Thimangu’s article suggests we should consider the limitations of organic gardening because they cannot solve our issues of world hunger, and so we need to emphasize more biotechnology.

The more subtle message: Organic gardening is over-rated.

Well, wait a second now – let’s consider the way in which Thimangu presents the issue of organic versus conventional. Heiss argues in her article on an advertising campaign for high-fructose corn syrup that the corporation can use its communication and advertising strategies to allow only a small group of stakeholders to partake in the discussion about our food.

In this case, the stakeholders are the experts on global food security. All of us small-scale, organic community gardeners are out of the loop. What do we know about global hunger? Thimangu’s article promoting conventional growing insinuates the other issues we care about (like pesticide impact on ecosystems) are not anywhere near as important.

In my hometown, not all community gardens are strictly organic. Whether or not you agree with Monsanto’s angle that conventional growing can solve food security, perhaps we can all agree on this: The debate is incomplete when we avoid discussing the other environmental and health issues related to gardening methods.

WP 3/1

Does Gardening Increase Fruit and Vegetable Intake?

Do gardeners eat more fruits and vegetables than their counterparts? The research says, “Yes!” but notes certain types of gardeners consume more than others.

Jackie Brinkman posted on the UCDenver Blog about a research study published in the August 2011 issue of the American Journal of Public Health. Brinkman summarizes the research findings:

“[This] research has shown that places such as community gardens matter in terms of neighborhood quality and people’s health…More than 50% of gardeners meet national guidelines for fruit and vegetable intake compared to 25% of non-gardeners.”

This research was very intriguing to me, and so I took a look at the original article to learn more. As a blogger attempting to summarize key points from this study, Brinkman’s post is a fairly accurate portrayal of the original research. However, Brinkman does not clarify what kinds of gardeners appear to benefit most from gardening. The researcher’s results showed the 56% of community gardeners met the national recommendations of five or more servings of fruits and vegetables per day, but – contrary to Brinkman’s post – less than 50% of home gardeners met this mark. Only 37% of home gardeners and 25% of nongardeners reported consuming the recommended five or more servings.

Scholars Fineburg and Rowe write in their commentary how those of us who relay information to the public can ensure we effectively communicate the story. Whether we are bloggers or university researchers, our role as conveyors of health information must be exercised with caution to ensure information is accurate and accessible to the audience. One of the guidelines Fineburg and Rowe suggest all messengers follow is to avoid simplifying the facts. In this case, blogger Brinkman has shared that gardeners consume more fruits and vegetables, but she fails to note what kind of gardeners are benefitting most: those who are growing in community plots.

Also consider the context of this study: because this study was conducted among urban adults, we cannot yet say what role the community garden may have for children, or how health habits may differ for those in rural communities.

So what should we take away from this study? While continued research will need to affirm these findings, this study shows that, while gardening in any form is associated with eating more fruits and veggies, our dietary habits might be more positively influenced through the connections we build within our communities. Find a neighbor and get digging!

WP 3/1

Gardening Programs: Fueled by Volunteers

How does a nonprofit like Friends of Burlington Gardens become a success? Of course, there are grants and other benefactors to help the organization monetarily, but I believe the real glue of an organization like this is the volunteers.

I got a phone call from one of the coordinators from the FBG in the short days before a children’s workshop event, with a last-minute request to assist her with one of the activities. I agreed to come, and helped with a workshop where kids made incredible fruit and vegetable sculptures (and snacks).

From what I could gather, most of the adults in attendance were volunteers with little experience or familiarity with the children’s mini-conference. Each group of children that circulated through our workshop came with one or two volunteers. Most of the time, these volunteers looked exhausted – especially in contrast to the excited kids – and half of the volunteers left during the workshop, perhaps using the time to recuperate. These volunteers were generally younger women who, perhaps like me, were looking for a chance to do volunteer work while getting exposure to children’s activities and anything remotely connected to nutrition or local foods. I got the feeling that these volunteers had never helped out for this event before since many seemed unsure about the time allotted to each workshop, and because many of these volunteers seemed somewhat uncomfortable improvising activities for the antsy children who finished their food sculptures early.

This is an example of how FBG (and the associated organization who created the children’s mini-conference) rely heavily on volunteers to make their events a success. FBG certainly has a core of volunteers who regularly offer help at events such as these, but other volunteers may be recruited through networks with related local organizations. For instance, the local food cooperative allows its members to receive discounts by volunteering with FBG.

The organization is always in need of more volunteers. I helped out at the office today and felt guilty leaving because there were more tasks to complete, and, sure enough, before I left, I was coaxed into helping at another event this weekend.

The volunteer is essential to this organization’s survival. But is it only because they are a body completing a task? Absolutely not! If you can think of a similar nonprofit in your hometown, try to imagine for a moment how that organization would differ if run only by a full-time staff of the same five or six or more people. How would that organization differ from how it was run when maintained by only one or two staff members plus a steady flow of volunteers? What are the benefits of each of these scenarios? To what extent is the community’s connection to the organization lost without the volunteer? I would argue that the steady flow of volunteers who help FBG are the foundation to its mission to serve and interact with the community.

FN 2/20