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.

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

Are we leaving kids’ health up to the schools?

Teaching garden programs are popping up across the nation. Kidsgardening.org, a useful site for resources on getting kids in the garden at home or at school, notes among the many impacts of these programs that they can improve nutrition attitudes, which potentially lead to better dietary habits. While lots of us may be getting out in gardens more than ever, children’s garden lessons are increasingly occurring during school hours as part of a classroom curriculum.

Great! Here is one more way we can try to improve children’s eating habits and address the jaw-dropping rates of childhood overweight and obesity. I am excited to see programs like these – called teaching gardens or simply school gardens – as well as many other school-based interventions, which encourage better eating and activity habits for kids. But are we putting too much pressure on the schools to manage our kids’ health?

You might just view the school garden as another great way to get kids outside, but these gardens help tell a bigger story in which schools are becoming increasingly liable for the health of kids. The question becomes: who should be held responsible for kids’ health? I found an interesting article on this topic that presented arguments for both sides.

On one side of the debate, many will argue that because kids spend so many hours at school each week, of course their diet habits need to be addressed by the school. For instance, UC-San Diego pediatrician, Howard Taras, was quoted: “Whoever is providing food for our children should be responsible with what foods they provide. In fact, schools may bear a certain increased burden, because as a teaching institution, they need to be a role model.”

But, on the other end of the debate, others argue the school environment can only go so far in promoting kids’ health. Parents and the community are important resources that need to be held reliable. What’s more, the school can only promote health to the extent that the parents and community will allow and work with the school. The classic example is the parent who wants to bring cupcakes to school. If the school is regarded as the most responsible for children’s health, the parents look bad if their own food choices are not up to snuff with the school standards. Consequently, a parent might be upset about a school controlling their child’s diet. I for one have met parents who are extremely defensive about the idea of the school telling the parent what their child can and cannot eat on school premises. For instance: Who wants to be told they can only pack their child a lunch if the yogurt they pack contains no added sugars? Might there at least be some gray boundaries in terms of what we each consider healthy? What’s more, those who support this latter argument may feel as though they should be able to give their child a treat without being denigrated by the school.

So is it the parent, the school or someone else who needs to direct what kids eat? More on this  tomorrow…Stay tuned and share your thoughts!

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