by Marnie Record, workforce specialist, Lincoln Land Community College
I recently completed a six week program with teens from the Boys and Girls Clubs of Central Illinois in which they came to Lincoln Land Community College each Monday afternoon to learn gardening skills, develop workforce readiness abilities and connect with the resources offered by the college. From this experience I gained a deeper appreciation of the value of building a relationship between kids and food, and the need for these learning opportunities to permeate students’ lives from home to school to the community.
In the span of a couple dozen hours, the group increased their gardening skills by 101 percent, cooking skills by 107 percent and reported liking vegetables tasted in the program by a rise of 78 percent. Every single teenager reported liking the work in the garden, in the kitchen, selling produce at the farm stand and taste testing the fruits and vegetables in new and different ways. Their openness to learning and trying new activities was inspiring.
One student noted at the end of the program, “I learned about growing food. I don’t go outside much and didn’t know anything about it.” When pressed further on his confidence in translating this learning to his home he said, “Yes, now I can grow my own vegetables.”
Through the ability to grow our own food, we can be assured of cost-effective access to quality, nutritional foods. Personally, my meal spending plummets 75 percent in the bountiful summer months, and my enthusiasm for healthy meals explodes with the delicious flavors of fresh ingredients. Additionally, with time spent producing food we are more likely to choose to eat healthy foods, and we become more connected to the natural world, the first step in taking care of the planet we live upon. We also develop tools for reducing stress, engage in physical labor which helps us sleep better, and witness moments of awe contributing to living in a state of gratitude.
During an hour of taking care of the garden this morning I saw a mother and young deer lying in the grass, a toad hopping amongst the bean plants, several pollinators working hard to make sure we have food and a hawk pestering the crows. All of these sightings help me to remember the world around the one in my head where I spend the most time. From this greater world comes a perspective of the intricate web of life of which we are a part.
With skills in the kitchen we learn how to prepare healthy, whole foods instead of relying on highly processed foods with low nutrition density. Furthermore, we imprint our palates for beneficial, energizing foods. We use the conscious part of our brain, the cerebral cortex when making the decision to eat an apple or a bag of potato chips. Once conditioned, however, the response to select the apple or the potato chip bag comes from the subconscious or unaware part of our brain. The dominant pattern established then dictates the foods we tend to eat.
One student commented about the pickles made from a few quality ingredients, “the flavors keep going and changing in my mouth.” Another student came back the next week and said she wasn’t able to eat store bought pickles anymore because they didn’t taste good. And the students unanimously asked for a second pickle tasting on the last day of the program. The change to healthy eating can happen fast.
The foundation for healthy eating starts with knowing how to grow and cook healthy food, and the more involved we are in the process, the greater chance we have for selecting healthy food.
In giving our children the best possible future, we must feed their learning of the food system. They are hungry for it. Multiple students in our program hugged the instructor who taught them to cook. They repeatedly commented in disbelief how fresh the food tasted.
At the completion of the program one student shared their most significant take-away by saying, “I learned that food can be used in many different ways. You don’t just have to eat a plain carrot.” Creative thinking in the kitchen lends to innovative solutions in the work world. We first must see possibility in new ways of operating, and our children need encouragement to test new ideas.
The program teens sold the produce at a campus farm stand that they also labored amongst, providing insight into produce sales specifically and business operations more broadly. They learned to distinguish kale from mustard greens and parsley from basil, and to identify beets and sage. From this experience of learning about the produce deeply enough to convince others to purchase it, they expanded their learning of foods they like to eat and deepened their relationship to food overall.
The teens tasted beans directly from the garden and then were able to sell the vegetable with first hand, genuine reviews of the fresh, delicious taste. They prepared the beans in a dish with other farm grown food and then sold customers on the idea of what they cooked with their heartfelt accolades of the ingredients. For a young person to have this influence on a peer or adult, a sense of empowerment comes from seeing the value of their voice. One student said, “Working the farm stand I learned how to express myself and communicate with people to sell food.”
We all eat and what we eat directly affects our health, our economy, and the well-being of our planet. By planting seeds and allowing our youth to intimately experience the food system, we can grow a generation of informed decision-makers who desire to create a thriving community for all.