Teaching Kids Food Safety: The Oreo Lesson

This weekend, I made it out to the orientation for one of Burlington’s community gardens. We lucked out with some gorgeous, sunny weather that encouraged me and many others to stick around for a while and begin weeding and loosening up the soil for some spring planting.

While most of the adults began hoeing and digging and planting a few seeds, five or six children played around in the garden or by the playhouse. One young girl crouched down by a garden bed and grabbed some soil in her hands. While I didn’t catch on to the possibility that she might try to eat the soil, one of the adults must have sensed this because she told the young girl, “Don’t eat that [soil]. That’s not food dirt. The only good food dirt is crumbled-up Oreo cookies.”

Now, I understand the message this woman was trying to get across to the little girl, which was: soil is not food. Beyond this, the woman may have been considering health risks associated with consuming contaminated dirt. After all, this garden site might be made up entirely of raised garden beds because of known soil toxicity.

In any case, I was really interested in this woman’s way of explaining safe and unsafe food. Translation: don’t eat soil (unsafe), but do eat Oreos (safe)!

Shucks, I’m thinking of those trendy health books with titles like, “Eat This, Not That” where the calorie counts of foods are compared, but here’s how it would look with those Oreos:


I know we want to prevent the girl from eating soil, but might there have been a better way Continue reading

One of the Perks of Joining a Community Garden Plot

This weekend, in anticipation for digging into my own garden plot, I attended an event on cold frame building and season extension at one of the community gardens in town. Well… actually, the workshop had to be rescheduled because the workshop leader wasn’t able to make it…

But if you ask me, that didn’t really even matter. While I was interested in learning about cold frames, I was also attending simply because I wanted to see this community garden space and meet other gardeners.

And, on that note, the workshop actually had a pretty small turnout… there were four of us present – two of whom were assisting with the event – which means really just me and one other person – Natalie* – were officially attending the workshop.

I have to admit that generally, when I think about who attends these kinds of workshops, I expect to see that stereotypical experienced gardener who arrives in grungy jeans and sneakers with calloused hands. Natalie didn’t fit this description at all with her manicured nails, sunglasses, and a short latte cup. Having moved to Vermont just recently from the South where there is a year-round growing season, I think Natalie’s motivation for attending the workshop was similar to my own: she just wanted to meet other gardeners and learn a few things as she started her own community garden plot.

Ground cherry seeds in their tomatillo-like pods

And while the workshop didn’t happen, Natalie and I still were offered some great resources. Natalie was set up with a trowel, a pot, and a little direction for transplanting some mint which she took home, and then we were both introduced to ground cherries – which are best described as a small, pineapple-like relative to the cherry tomato. Seed pods from last year’s ground cherries littered a few of the garden beds, and I stuffed a big handful of these into my coat pocket.

I’m getting super-excited to start some seeds in my own community garden plot this spring, and I’m thankful to be splitting it with my boyfriend and my friend so we can share the workload and garden knowledge. Natalie, on the other hand, will be managing her own plot. My first thought about running my own plot was, “Ugh, what a load of work, and do I really know enough about gardening to pull this off?” But after the spontaneous assistance from other community gardeners, I think I’m starting to get a sense of the meaning of the “community” in community gardening. Although it might initially feel more challenging to maintain a plot if you’re newer to the garden scene, there are plenty of resources available within the gardening network to ensure your hard work returns a fruitful harvest.

*Name changed

FN 4/9

What Le(a)d me to Think About Cold Frames…

Here in Burlington, Vermont, we are lucky to have the resource ReSOURCE, which is a nonprofit that reuses and recycles goods that might otherwise be thrown out. In addition to re-selling some items (such as my coffee table and some dishes), the organization has a branch called ReBUILD, which finds a home for old building materials – either by re-selling the raw materials, or by creating a new product such as these gorgeous cutting boards:

On a recent visit to Friends of Burlington Gardens, I found out that ReBUILD is also selling cold frames made from recycled window frames… ‘What a fantastic idea – how nice to see more affordable resources for gardening!’ I thought, and so did Jess… until she decided to ask if the window frames were coated in lead paint.

The clerk said it was quite possible they were. Yikes. Lead is a serious problem for anyone, but it’s an especially large health risk for young children as it can affect development of the nervous system. Not only could a child be at risk through direct contact with the lead (say, if they touch or eat this sweet-tasting paint), but this cold frame would also leach lead into the soil and into the food we eat.

The clerk added that a flyer with information on reused materials and lead exposure was available to customers who purchased the cold frames… but how many customers do you suppose actually read these warnings? Jess has since been in touch with ReBUILD, and I don’t doubt they’ll recognize the mistake and address this matter quickly.

This is an issue beyond one organization. After hearing about ReBUILD’s toxic mistake, I was curious how much the DIY gardeners considered this same health risk. In some websites giving directions for building your own cold frame, such as this one, the authors have been thoughtful in explaining safe building materials:

…But not every website on DIY cold frames will remind you of this warning. I could find any warning within the University of Missouri Extension’s detailed directions for building a cold frame.

Lead exposure is a serious health issue, and yet I would argue, based on the ReBUILD story and my visits to several DIY websites, that we expect it’s on the consumer to watch out for lead exposure. If you buy a lead-laden cold frame or building supplies and plop that structure into your garden, it’s your own fault you were exposed to poison. Certainly, there are many, many resources available on lead risk and safely removing lead from a home in Vermont and from the EPA. But does that make it okay to sell a product that is almost undoubtedly going to result in lead exposure?

I’m not a public health expert, but I suspect that the greater majority of people at least understand this: lead is detrimental to health. But are you 100% confident when you purchase reused materials or a product made from reused materials that it is not coated in lead paint?

So, at the same time that we want to promote the health of our communities by increasing gardening activity and by working with affordable, reused materials, how do we be more conscious of the health risks? Do you think we need to place more liability on those who sell products or building materials containing lead? I’d love your feedback on this. And also consider that many DIY-ers will collect materials from yard sales and antique stores… maybe it is better to just leave it up to the consumer to figure it all out?

FN 3/26