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Growing A Bumper Crop Of Smart, Healthy Kids

The connection from farm to table has been broken by decades of change in our food system.

The social result of this break in understanding where our food comes from is almost incomprehensible. With increased global food production, cities have become detached from local farms and food resources. In turn, local farms have been separated from the urban community and they struggle to find alternative ways to sell their produce locally rather than corporately over long distances. Urban residents may not have access to a diverse range of fruits and vegetables at an affordable price, and supermarkets that are increasingly built on the periphery of town make regular access to fresh fruit and vegetables difficult to those living in the city. This lack of access to nutritionally-sound food in urban areas contributes to poverty-related poor health. While our food system continues in this manner, our society faces a myriad of challenges. One of the greatest challenges is the health crisis of childhood obesity.

Not only are children overweight because of their sedentary lifestyles, they are overweight because they no longer have a healthy relationship with food. Many kinds of food are always available in the local supermarket, so our children no longer understand the seasons in which food is grown. Beyond that, our children rarely make the connection between their health and the importance of fresh vegetables and foods because of the use, marketing and availability of heavily processed food products.

But ironically, our children are not only overweight, they are also severely malnourished. I am not speaking of physical malnourishment due to the rampant poverty that affects children in urban and rural communities—although it is a factor. Children of all socioeconomic status are hungry for more. They are hungry for more than the empty calorie foods that can be found at the local convenience store or in the vending machine in the hallway at the local middle school.

Our children are starving for a sense of community, family, and sense of belonging to a greater purpose. They don’t know it, but they are craving the companionship that comes from sitting down together at the dinner table at the end of the day; enjoying not only food together, but the companionship that comes with sharing a meal with one another.

Like many communities in Michigan, in Grand Rapids we are rebuilding kids’ relationship with food from the ground up. One motto is “Let them eat what they grow!” Concerned parents and citizens, educators, corporations, nonprofit organizations, health officials, and policy makers are working together to make positive change in the school environments, including establishing school vegetable gardens and kitchen classrooms in the schools.

Here in Grand Rapids, the positive reactions of the nearly 800 urban children who participate in our programs annually support that school vegetable gardens and kitchen classrooms are tried and true strategies that reeducate children about food. In the vegetable garden, children learn basic horticultural practices and environmental stewardship by growing a diverse range of delicious and nutritious foods. The vegetable garden is a valuable instructional tool and can serve as a classroom to teach the hard sciences, social sciences, the arts, and teamwork.

In the kitchen classroom, the bounty from the garden, ideally supplemented by produce from local farms, is incorporated into the kitchen lessons. While in the kitchen, children learn culinary skills, nutrition, and social skills while preparing and sharing food from a culturally diverse collection of recipes.

But it will not be enough just to create vegetable gardens and kitchen classrooms to restore our children’s relationship to food. Our society needs to value our farmers, our food, our health, and our environment and build the educational infrastructure to support programs like these. We all have a stake in reconnecting our children to the cycle of growing and preparing food, and as a concerned parent and social entrepreneur, here are my recommendations:

Let us build vegetable gardens and kitchen classrooms so our children can learn what it means to be connected to the soil. Let us take them to farmers’ markets to meet the people that grow our food; or better yet, visit the farm in person. We also need to replace the soda and snack foods in schools with healthful, local food alternatives. We need to voice our visions to school officials and work together to find alternatives to fund initiatives that promote healthful school environments for our kids. Let us make a commitment to cultivate a community where all children are well-fed; value health, diversity, and individuality; and develop a deep-rooted sense of belonging to a greater purpose. Then we will have a healthy community not only physically, but in spirit.