Last weekend, visiting family in Vermont, I went with my nieces and nephews to an apple orchard where we ate cider donuts, picked our own apples, and fed the pigs, goats and donkeys roaming in their outdoor enclosures. My youngest nephew, who just turned one, was enthralled by the donkey’s long ears and velvety nose. The others couldn’t wait to ride on the “cow train,” a string of kid-sized black and white spotted cars towed around the orchard by the farmer in his tractor. As they took off into the trees, one happily munching on a honeycrisp apple, I thought how lucky they were to grow up within a stone’s throw of not only this kid-friendly orchard, but half a dozen dairy and vegetable farms whose products they eat in school and at home. With a store of vivid memories like these and so much exposure to how food is grown, agricultural literacy (one of our buzzwords at Spoons) is practically guaranteed for these rural kids.
But for kids who don’t grow up in a farming community, like my students in New York public schools, agricultural literacy is not a given. They will grow up as experts in urban environments, but most of them won’t have that built-in connection to the places and people who produce their food. In a city where the people who grow our apples or carrots can feel very far away, we have to get creative.
Food and farming literacy runs through all of our curricula, of course, but we introduce it to our youngest students with one of my favorite programs, Farm to Book. Each month, we read a beautiful picture book about food or farming, from true stories about farmers and chefs, to food-related folk tales and fiction, to richly depicted journeys of food products from farm to plate. After each book we have a lively discussion about the story, then lead the kids in an engaging activity that reinforces a concept from the story or introduces the content from a new angle. Finally, we taste the food we’ve been talking about: crunchy apples, sharp cheese, delicate baby spinach, or whatever else we may have learned about in the story.
We might read the true story of Fred, a beekeeper in Brooklyn, and end by sampling Brooklyn honey, debating whether we can detect a hint of local blueberries or wildflowers like they do in the book. Or we may learn the different parts of a plant we eat through a beautifully photographed book, and end by tasting a flower (broccoli), a stem (celery), and a fruit (tomatoes). If we have a little extra time, I love seeing the kids lead their own activities to make meaning from the material. One crowd-pleasing book about dairy led some students to draw a huge diagram of a cheese factory on the board, to make sure they understood all the steps of making mozzarella. When we read about making wheat into flour and flour into bread, a particularly diverse class shared stories about bread in their own cultures, and we discussed the similarities and differences between the breads of their traditional cuisines.
We draw on the students’ cultural knowledge in our lessons, and we also draw from any hands-on experiences they may have had with growing food. Many neighborhoods in New York have community gardens, and more and more public schools in the city are including school gardens in their curriculum. So some of my students have actually had their hands in the dirt, which makes farming all the more relatable to them. These kids are eager to share their experiences of pulling carrots from the ground, tearing fragrant basil leaves off their stem, or nibbling on baby lettuce that grew from tiny seeds. Some classes have visited farms
, and vivid memories of chickens, cows, cider, pumpkins and hayrides are seared into their minds. The cries of recognition when we read about something they’ve experienced firsthand, and the stories they can’t wait to share, are proof that growing food holds a certain magic for kids. They are hungry for more experience on the farm, lived or imagined through books.
By engaging all their senses – from listening to richly detailed books, to tasting local food – we are making rich memories that deepen the kids’ connection to agriculture. With our hour-long classes, we may not be able to whisk them away to a farm, but we can make sure that for that hour, they are deeply immersed in the stories, places, and flavors of our food system. As their food vocabularies and frames of reference expand, they are able to walk into their cafeterias and local grocery stores with new understanding. When a child sees an apple or a potato at the store and can figure out where it’s grown, what variety it is, what part of the plant it is, and how it got there — that’s agricultural literacy. They may not be growing up on a farm, but it doesn’t feel quite so far away.