Give peas a chance
The school garden is planted, and the year nearly done. In our third year of growing an edible veggie patch, we’re really seeing pickup on the part of the kids, parents and teachers in our community. It’s not that they didn’t respond before, but there’s something different about it this year, a feeling that the garden is part of the social, emotional and academic environment—not just the physical one. There are many kids who’ve never known the school without a garden. They feel tremendous ownership of it, reminding each other to be careful, where the peas, basil or radishes are planted, and they come out for our weekly tending and watering “party.”
There are lots of reasons for this change—the main one being the awesome teachers at the school who embed it into their work in the classroom—but one of the things that has also helped is that there are now colourful signs made by the children explaining what’s happening in the patch.
Last year, with the support of teachers and a local artist, they created collage images illustrating garden-specific concepts like A Plant’s Life, Beneficial Insects, Compost and the Three Sisters (corn, beans, squash) Plot we’ve planted. They also researched and wrote up text to accompany their images. With foundation funding, we had weather resistant signs made. Now kids can go with their teachers and discuss the material as part of an outdoor class, or just read the beautiful posters with their parents or friends.
The signs serve to beautify the playground, mark the garden as a place of kid-centred and kid-led learning and emphasize food literacy in the school.
The sign idea was inspired by a school in Oakland California that I posted about a few years ago here. I’d love to hear what you are doing in your school garden to emphasize food literacy or just make it a more fun and inviting place. Comment here and I’ll post about some of the ideas soon.
There is something truly magical about planning and planting a garden. Riffling through seed catalogues, talking to other gardeners about plants, hashing it out on paper, even preparing the soil. In those moments, the garden is all beautiful potential.
I think it’s a bit like writing fiction—something I’m also doing right now. Most writers begin with an image or an idea, a character, a voice, a setting, or maybe a plot twist. In your head it is glorious and perfect and you can only imagine that it will be easy to write and astonish others as it has astonished you.
But then, you sit down to write and come up against your own imperfect mind and gifts, exhaustion or inexperience. It never sounds exactly as you imagined before there were words on a page. No matter how good, no matter how surprising, it never exactly captures that initial inspiration. There are lots of people who pack it in, but also many who keep going, digging away, hoping that they might come close to expressing that moment of clarity and insight.
It is the same in the garden. In imagining the vegetables and herbs and flowers I will grow, there are no cats pooping, slugs eating or tomatoes rotting. At the school garden, there are no seedlings torn by little hands, no vandals painting over the signs the children have made, no seeds that fail to emerge from the soil. Spring is a beautiful kind of reverie and I want to linger here in this moment, to revel in pure potential.
It’s still pretty chilly here in Toronto, but the garlic I planted last fall in our small raised bed doesn’t seem to mind.
And the crocuses seem to be positively enjoying it.
I’m going to wait for a patch of warmer days to get out my own personal brass band about spring, but I’m feeling much more hopeful about gardening—especially school gardening—now that Ontario teachers are back and able to do extracurriculars. It’s been a demoralizing school year on that front, and I was genuinely worried the garden wouldn’t happen this year—that all the momentum we’ve been gathering would be lost. Now it looks as though our plots can be salvaged for the spring. We’re planning to focus on celebrating the multicultural heritage of the families at our school and are hoping to plant some of the plants specific to the children’s cultures, as well as gather recipes from our school community.
In other good news, The Stop hit The Globe and Mail bestseller list this past weekend, coming in at #10 for Canadian nonfiction. Not bad for a book about food banks and the politics of food!
This week, Crave, a web site focusing on food and health-related books, asked us to blog about our book, The Stop: How Good Food Transformed a Community and Inspired a Movement coming out next week. Nick Saul and I decided to write about our experience planting a veggie patch on our city lawn—and some personal discoveries about the power of food.
Here’s a taste of the blog post. To read the whole thing, check out Crave.
When we decided to build a raised bed vegetable garden on our small downtown Toronto front yard a few years ago, we thought mostly about the delicious tomatoes, peppers and fresh herbs we’d enjoy come harvest time. We ordered fresh soil, built a simple structure using 2x6s and some brackets and shopped for seeds at farmers’ markets. But the day the soil arrived, it was clear the harvest was the least of the pleasures involved in growing food in the city.
The book that I’ve been working on with my husband, food activist Nick Saul, arrived at our house the other day. The Stop: How the Fight for Good Food Transformed a Community and Inspired a Movement is a bit like our third baby. It’s been a long and interesting gestation process thinking about, researching and writing a book together and it was thrilling to see it for reals.
If you can’t wait for the book itself to launch into the world on March 19th, an excerpt is coming out in Reader’s Digest next week. In the meantime, we’ve written a piece about the challenges of food banks in the April issue of The Walrus. The online version of the essay won’t be up for a bit, but you can find one of Canada’s last great magazines on newsstands everywhere great magazines are found. Nick and I will be talking about the book and the Community Food Centre (CFC) model a lot over the next few months. Watch here for details. For more on CFCs, visit the Community Food Centres Canada website or www.andreacurtis.ca
What’s for Lunch? was created for kids, their parents and teachers to initiate discussions about food and the way it connects to so many issues that we all care about. Things like the environment, poverty, hunger, our health and the health of our communities.
But reading the book is just the beginning. I hope families and educators will use it as a bouncing-off point for more in-depth discussions. That’s why, with the help of my publisher, Red Deer Press, I’ve created a FREE Teaching Guide for use in classrooms everywhere. The guide has questions aimed at initiating talk about what kids eat around the world, teaching ideas inspired by the book’s content, blacklines for easy printout—all downloadable here. (It’s about 5 MB.)
There are curriculum connections to health and nutrition, environmental sustainability, diversity, urban/rural connections, media education and much more. From the Pizza Pie game to Untangling the Food System to a more in-depth session we call The Lottery of Life, I hope these resources will inspire teachers to bring the ideas in What’s for Lunch? into their classroom. I’d love to hear how it goes. Email me (andrea at andreacurtis dot ca) and let me know!
As I gear up for my next book to come out in mid-March (check it out here)—with all the trepidation and excitement that entails— it’s particularly nice to see blogger reviews still coming in for What’s for Lunch?
I’m also doing a number of talks and presentations about the book with both children and adults over the next few months. If you want me to come to your school or community group, you can contact me about fees and my availability.
Just this week, obesity doc Yoni Freedhoff posted a review of the book on his blog Weighty Matters. He liked What’s for Lunch? quite a bit though he had some really interesting stuff to say about how obesity is framed in the text.
A chilly view from the High Line
I spent this past weekend on a mini vacation in New York City walking and exploring and eating, as well as talking about food with school lunch and food justice (super)hero, Jan Poppendieck, who wrote the brilliant Sweet Charity? about the failures of food banking, and the more recent (and equally brilliant) Free for All: Fixing School Food in America.
The weekend was a literal smorgasbord of fun, food and inspiration. One of the surprise highlights was stumbling on the new food exhibit at the Museum of Natural History. Called Our Global Kitchen, it uses multimedia, display, historical objects, diaroma and even taste tests to bring to life the complexity of our food system, the future of food (think seaweed, bugs and less meat) and the joys of eating together. There’s a chance to sit at a table with a Roman aristocrat, see an ancient Aztec marketplace and cook up various recipes on an interactive table/screen.
Curated by the Center for Biodiversity Conservation, the exhibit pulls no punches about the challenges of feeding a projected 9 billion people by 2050 or the profound problems with current industrial agricultural practices.
Considering the equivocating I seem to read in the media about this (as if it’s still sane to question climate change or the failures of the so-called green revolution to feed the world), I was delighted to see how matter of fact the exhibit is. This is science, baby.
I can’t wait to read my friend Sarah Elton’s upcoming book, Consumed: Sustainable Food for a Finite Planet for more on this subject.
(For teachers and educators who can’t make it to New York before the show closes in August, there are downloadable teaching resources for all grades that touch on issues in the food system like biodiversity, the supply chain and trade, hunger and diet-related health issues. The resources are pegged to the exhibit itself but there are lots of ideas about how to bring these topics into the classroom.)
I’ve been making school lunch for my boys for nearly a decade. I don’t like it much and have come up with many (thwarted) plans to get out of the business. They invariably involve having my children make their own meal. But that ideal bumps up against the time-strapped, space-strapped, coffee-deprived reality that is our weekday mornings. Frankly, at this moment in our busy lives, I’d rather make their lunch than create another make-work project for myself. We manage pretty well, all things considered (they eat most of the healthy food we offer in their bags and don’t complain—much).
I am learning to accept the fact that I will likely have children who expect their lunches made for them well into their college years and hope that the other opportunities we’ve created for independence, food appreciation and planning will compensate for this failure.
Despite having acknowledged this many times, despite the fact that What’s for Lunch? is a book about the politics of food rather than a how-to for busy, frustrated parents who must pack a meal for their darlings every day, I have been asked frequently since WFL was published about the secret to making a great lunch. I invariably say I don’t have the answers (see above).
But as I’ve reflected on my personal experience and all the amazing school lunches I learned about in my research, I have started to think I do have a few thoughts on the matter. Let’s call them observations rather than advice. Continue reading