Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Rainbows and Bravery Bites: Lessons from the Children's Garden

After 130 years of cultivation, the dirt at Marra Farm is like no other. 130 years is a long time. “It’s probably older than your grandma’s grandma”, I would tell the wonder-struck kids as they wandered through our sunflower forests this summer. “After 130 years, this dirt understands more about good health than we’re ever likely to know.”

Under the shade of these magnificent 10-foot tall sun-towers, we’ve been bonding with the dirt and cooking up its marvelous creations.
How do you grow magical sunflowers?
By using magical soil!
Here are seven lessons, tips, and grubby seeds left behind from our summer kids’ nutrition education classes at Marra Farm and the Seattle Community Farm.

Rainbows Rock

We built our summer series with preschoolers around the theme of colors. We prepared a rainbow of recipes: purple kohlrabi and beet hummus, orange carrot and yam mish-mash, yellow squash and eggs -- you get the idea. The kids ate it all up! The theme of colors integrates beautifully with the MyPlate nutrition guidelines. Because really, who doesn’t want to eat a rainbow?

We’re also delighted by the rainbow of colorful signs created by summer interns and a new mosaic garden mural at the Seattle Community Farm installed by our amazing community partners at Coyote Central.
Mosaic at the Seattle Community Farm

Variations on the Familiar = Lesson Success 

We strive to design culturally and socio-economically relevant lessons that resonate with kids we teach. During our classes with students from South Park Community Center, that meant making “farm-style” versions of foods from Mexico, Central America and East Africa. 

We have also been preparing American fusion favorites, like macaroni and cheese (with kale!), spaghetti (sautéed with a little summer squash), nachos (topped with banana peppers and cilantro) and mashed potatoes (mixed with yams and carrots). 

This summer, our students, led by Chef Sue Bell from Cooking Matters, elected to make quesadillas with chard and zucchini, complete with mango salsa.

If You Can Say It, You Can Sing It

We've been reading books and practicing garden literacy skills for many years. This summer, we expanded our repertoire of garden songs, thanks to some great tips from Seattle Tilth’s own ukulele virtuoso and garden educator, Lisa Taylor. 

And if you can sing it, then you can dance it! I even studied up on my Sprinkler dance moves this summer.

Chickens are the New Carrots 

On the last day class, we ask kids what they liked, and what advice they have for the teachers planning next year’s class. Throughout my three years at Marra Farm, the most popular activity has always been HARVESTING THE CARROTS! 

Though we'll always keep growing and harvesting these glorious spears of Vitamin A, this summer we loudly heard the excitement from our students around our new feathery friends in the Community Chicken Co-op. If you have lesson ideas, amazing factoids, or other clucker lore, please send them my way!

Bravery Bites Matter 

We have a couple rules at when we try new foods at Marra Farm:
  1. Don’t Yuck My Yum. We respect that everyone has different tastes. 
  2. Take a Bravery Bite.  You don’t have to love it; you do have to try it. 
Sometimes a kid’s face will still scrunch into that universal expression of grossssss. But more often than not, while chewing a bravery bite, that fear softens into the surprising realization that cooked carrots are, actually, not so terrible.

Adults are Role Models (All the Time)

At both Marra Farm and the Seattle Community Farm, we are blessed with incredible interns and volunteer garden teachers. Without this team, we could not offer our garden-based nutrition classes in the way that we do: with low child to adult ratios, student-centered lessons, and positive, time-intensive discipline. 

These adults support this work by behaving as role models: turning off their cell phones, grubbing around in the soil, listening to directions, and always trying new foods.

Garden-based Nutrition Education Works

Anyone who watches kids cooking and mucking around in the garden can tell that it usually makes them happy, but how do you actually demonstrate that the fun translates into improved health? 

We currently measure success in several ways, including:
  • Measuring student preference for vegetables through surveys. During our spring classes, students increased their preference for every single one of the vegetables that we surveyed them on – including an impressive 16% increase in gusto for kale! 
  • Using “tasting charts,” where kids rate the snack of the day. Anyone who thinks kids can't like vegetables needs to check out the results from summer our class of students ages 6–9 from the South Park Community Center.
We continue to look for additional creative methods that illustrate how this crucial work changes lives.

Lettuce Link began teaching garden-based nutrition education to one class from Concord Elementary in 2003. The teacher snuck her students down to Marra Farm because the school administration didn't support this type of learning. 

Ten years later, it is amazing to see the program's growth. In 2013, we engaged more than 500 children in garden and nutrition education in the classroom at Concord Elementary and at Marra Farm and the Seattle Community Farm. This doesn't even include the scores of children who visit Lettuce Link’s farms on field trips. 

If we keep growing children who nourish their bodies, communities, and the earth -- like all the people who have tended the soil at Marra Farm -- I feel pretty optimistic about the next 130 years.

Highpoint YMCA Scholars on a field trip at Marra Farm

~Amelia Swinton, Lettuce Link Education Coordinator

Thanks to our nutrition education community partners at Concord International Elementary School, the South Park Community Center, the Rainier Vista Boys and Girls Club, and the Sea Mar Child Development Center for learning with us this year! These classes are made possible thanks to the USDA’s SNAP-ED funding.

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