I haven’t posted lately here but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been doing a lot of thinking about kids and food-related subjects. I think of this blog as hibernating right now—something like the winter garden. You can’t see all the activity down below beneath the snow and muck, but it’s happening all the same.
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We wound down a productive summer in the school garden a few weeks back with a Harvest Potluck and celebration that included fun activities like making the scarecrow above, potato and apple prints, mulching the trees and a scavenger hunt. We’d hoped to eat outside beside our still growing vegetable patch, but threat of rain had us setting up in the school gym at tables we’d dressed with kraft paper and white tablecloths, gourds and crayons.
To add to the incredible spread of goodies provided by families (plus corn and cider purchased by the school), our outstanding French/library teacher and garden advocate worked with kids in class to make roasted carrots, kale salad, beet hummus and “smashed” potatoes using garden veggies (with a little help from the farmers’ market!). We’d planned for about 100 people to turn out, and were shocked and thrilled when some 400 people from our school community filled the gym and hallways. There was some minor panic about long lines for the food and not enough seating but nothing a few hastily erected tables and a tray of warm cider and beet hummus offered to those in line didn’t resolve.
The highlight of the evening for me was when the kids brought down the house with a song about the garden they’d been practising all week long with that same French teacher. Let’s just say I wasn’t the only adult in the crowd dabbing at my eyes. The song and the entire evening showed all of us how the garden has become such an essential part of our school community—a place the kids take pride in tending, a place for both learning and celebrating, a place not just for food but for connecting with others.
(Photos by Andrea Curtis)
Some great What’s for Lunch? news arrived on my doorstep when I returned from holiday this week. What’s for Lunch? is available in South Korea!
Like so many children around the world, kids in South Korea have a daily hot meal at school. Lunch is served in a metal tray with multiple compartments and always includes rice and kimchi (pickled vegetables). There’s also a protein (chicken, fish, egg, tofu, but often it’s octopus or squid!), usually served stewed or boiled, plus more veggie sides such as eggplant, radish, bean sprouts or lotus root. Soup is also offered some days.
There are some great photos of South Korean school lunches on this teacher’s Tumblr blog.
To give a sense of just how important the issue is in South Korea, a couple of years ago, the city of Seoul held a very contentious referendum about school lunch. Some members of municipal government had the foresight to push for healthy, free school meals for all of the 800,000-plus primary and middle school kids in the city’s public schools. Of course, such a proposal is costly ($380 million a year, according to this piece in Time) and the program faced opposition from Conservative members of council, including the mayor. (There was even a brawl in council chambers over the issue!)
As I’ve argued many times before, of course, I think the economic and social benefits of school lunch are vast and far-reaching in better health and school performance, among other things. Seems citizens of Seoul agreed (though voter turnout was low) and the universal free school lunch program was passed. The mayor resigned in frustration.
I hope kids and teachers in South Korea feel as strongly as some of their policy makers and I do about the positive impact of school lunch (no brawling, please!). And I look forward to hearing what they think about the lovely hardcover, brand-spanking new Korean version of my book!
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!