Kids take their lead where they find it. Sometimes parents steer kids in one direction, their experiences at school in another. When it comes to food, there is little doubt that every child, for better or worse, develops eating habits from a very early age. After all, we love to eat.
Sunday Harrison is the co-ordinator of the Green Thumbs Growing Kids program (www.greenthumbsto.org). She works collaboratively with the school board in a cluster of elementary schools in high -need neighbourhoods. She explains her motivation for this program, “Children are growing up in high-rise communities without access to green space and fresh growing food. Research shows that positive attitudes towards nature are formed in childhood.”
I would agree that kids can learn a lot by growing their own food and it is impossible for me to imagine a parent who does not feel the same way. As I dig into the subject further with Sunday, I find out that I can learn a thing or two about the benefits that kids enjoy when they grow their own food. Here are a few:
1. Universal language. “We witness the power of gardening to unite people through the universal language of food; our programs reach all ages at various times during the year,” Sunday explains. Green Thumbs partners with schools to integrate lessons of gardening with curriculum expectations in science, language, art, mathematics and social studies.
2. Worms, Squirrels and Humans. We are not alone. And the gardening experience helps kids to understand that we share the natural world with myriad other creatures. In fact, the lesson here is not just that living things share our outdoor space with us, but in some cases, the land was their home first. At least we get to go “home” to our own bed at the end of the day.
3. Who benefits? 70 per cent of the kids who participate in the program come from first-generation immigrant families, including many refugees. The kids and volunteers who help to deliver the program are encouraged to taste, harvest and take food from the school garden home. Better food = better nutrition = better learning. This year, there are over 3,000 kids reached by the program.
4. “What about summer?” After all, that is when a healthy harvest is made or broken. A great deal of the watering, weeding and harvesting all take place while kids are off school for up to 10 weeks. She replies, “Youth staff run weekly drop-in evenings for families to care for and harvest the gardens all summer, and local day campers visit — many are the same children who planted in spring.” The gardens provide summer youth programs with the perfect space for teaching healthy food preparation, art, music, meditation and yoga. “Beyond summer jobs, youth in our programs have opportunities to earn money through our social enterprise, gardening and residential properties.”
5. Why not standardize the program across the board? I ask the obvious question: the elephant in the garden. If the idea of Green Thumbs Growing Kids is so wonderful, shouldn’t the government hop on board and support school boards to offer such programs? “Canada remains the only industrialized country without a national school food policy,” Sunday states emphatically. “Most successful long-term school gardens are either supported by community organisations or are located in high-income school districts.”
I considered this answer from Sunday when I recently read an article in the Washington Post by Shannon Brescher Shea titled “How Gardening Can Help Build Healthier, Happier Kids.” In it, she optimistically states that gardening in households with kids increased by 25 per cent in the States between 2008 and 2013. “The natural stimulation of being outside seems to replenish minds exhausted from practicing self-discipline. It re-energizes the part of the brain that controls concentration, checks urges and delays gratification.”
I am encouraged by this and hope that Canadians are following suit — or will take an opportunity to lead the way. I know this about our veggie-growing habits: seed rack sales of vegetables are up about 20 per cent across the board and have been tracking increases for the last five years.
Eating Dirt is Good
Shea suggests that research points to the benefits to young children who eat dirt. They develop “microbiome” or a personal microbe ecosystem. Although there are some microbes — bacteria, fungi and viruses — that make us sick, many more are essential to our health.
I reflect on my late mother’s attitude towards my penchant for eating dirt as a young child. Much like her attitude towards outdoor activity generally, there was this benign-ness about it all. “Just make sure you are home before dark.”
I think that my microbiome has served me well over the years.
Mark Cullen is lawn and garden expert for Home Hardware, member of the Order of Canada, author and broadcaster. Get his free monthly newsletter at markcullen.com. Look for his new best seller, “The New Canadian Garden,” published by Dundurn Press. Follow him on Twitter @MarkCullen4 and Facebook.