Top | Opinion

A garden education

(article, Linda Colwell)

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p(blue). Editor’s note: On December 1, 2007, Culinate will host a dinner with Deborah Madison in Portland to benefit Slow Food’s effort to help build school gardens. We are impressed by the strong connections children make to their food when they have a garden to work in as part of their curriculum. We asked Slow Food member Linda Colwell, a longtime garden advocate, to talk more about Slow Food and gardens.

Slow Food believes that the solution to better health and wellness among our nation’s youth relies heavily on their — and our — ability to make conscious, informed decisions about food: who grows it, how it grows, how it is prepared, and with whom it is enjoyed. This is not a new idea, but perhaps one we have oversimplified in our fast-paced culture. 

[%image "reference-image" width=350 float=left caption="Corn in the Garden of Wonders."] 

Six years ago, I received seed money from Slow Food Portland to help implement a garden-education program at Edwards Elementary School. One day, I was in our garden, christened the Garden of Wonders, with a handful of second-graders. It was a wet April, and I was teaching them about habitats, early seasonal pollinators, apple blossoms, and winter storage apples like the Arkansas Black — quite an artificial construct to wrap three seasonal examples into one “seasonal” lesson. 

Still, we followed a trail of ants marching up and down the sapling and explored the living soil and the nooks and crannies that attracted the ants. We observed the ants' behavior and made guesses about what they were doing. When I pulled out my French pocketknife to cut the apple in half to show them how its core pattern replicates the blossom, one of the students exclaimed, “You are not allowed to have a knife in school!” I replied that the knife was actually my tool and does jobs I cannot do. 

Later that morning, I noted the number of robins feasting on worms brought to the surface by the rain, and saw an explosion of feathers as a Cooper's Hawk dropped in over the maples and flew off with a meal. I was grateful that I had witnessed such fine examples of the goals I had outlined for myself, to teach life cycles and life skills and be awestruck by what we see.

The apple class exposed the children to lessons in botany, environmental appreciation, food education, and character development in the school garden. In a school garden, children experience the natural environment in relation to themselves and as a provider of their needs. They observe the natural world, a complex system of healthy soil, air, and water, and draw powerful conclusions about its order and how it sustains us. They know that living soil is the basis of healthy living bodies. 

Ideally, they develop inherent reverence for the very thing that sustains them. This knowledge may in fact enable them to think critically about the environmental and human ills we are inheriting from generations of industrial food production and challenge those following us to create healthier systems

When a garden is viewed as an environment that shapes us in body, mind, and soul, it is a framework for young minds to see health in our bodies, environment, and communities. As students coax gifts from the soils, they exercise their bodies and minds. Their participation in this common space — the school garden — makes it special and, as a result, their relation to it and their activities in that space are valued by them and for them.

“Gastronomy is the intelligent knowledge of whatever concerns man’s nourishment,” Brillat-Savarin writes in The Physiology of Taste. To be a gastronome means more than knowing where your food comes from. It means knowing the sciences, culture, politics, and economics that influence a knowledgeable existence. 

Ideally, this happens in school gardens, but can also happen at home. When we distill core values and knowledge, we create the opportunity for children to see the natural world as events and environmental influences that have created the complex system that we rely on and from which we benefit. This is what school gardens are for. If we are successful in this effort to have our children experience learning in gardens and the natural environment, we will see benefits in individual, community, and environmental health.

Slow Food supports the development of school gardens because gardens teach deep content. The campaign to “know where your food comes from” is good, but not enough to stem the environmental and health challenges facing us. Slow Food understands that shaping young minds with knowledge-based experience begins to support good, clean, and fair food. That is an investment in the future. 

What can we do? Build school gardens. Bring students outside. Turn over a log or rock and see what is living underneath. Hatch chicken eggs and adopt the chicks out to families. Visit a farm three times and see what changes from one visit to the next. Harvest vegetables and take them into the cafeteria to wash and add to the salad bar, put on the pizza, or serve as a snack in the classroom. Build relationships with teachers and cafeteria workers to create spaces for children to learn by observation. Sit in the garden, grow food, preserve it, share it, eat hand to mouth from the garden, and talk about it. 

Building and sustaining a school garden will focus our attention on spaces rich with information, guidance, education, and inspiration, and will change our relationship with food. Like the ants, robins, and Cooper's Hawk, we will be practicing and knowing sustenance. And knowing will inform our choices.

p(bio). Linda Colwell is a chef, writer, and consultant in food, farms, and school-garden education. She founded the Garden of Wonders school-garden project and the scratch kitchen at Abernethy Elementary  School in Portland, Oregon.

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