Reconnecting Children with Local Food and the Land

Local farm-to-school programs continue to thrive in region. Photo Courtesy of THE CORNUCOPIA PROJECT.

With obesity and chronic health conditions on the rise in America, it has never been so important to educate children about physical fitness and nutrition.

Processed foods have been identified as a leading factor in overconsumption and long-term negative effects on wellness, and that has sparked a great deal of conversation around how to make healthy, fresh food accessible for all.

But for children, the issue runs even deeper. There’s less outdoor time and more screens, as well as shorter recesses and more educational standards. The landscape of childhood has transformed, and the effects are numerous. Being disconnected from the land and food has impacts beyond just the physical; it is also affecting the personal growth of America’s children.

Over the last several years, the urgency around addressing this cultural shift has grown. Marilyn Wyzga, school programs coordinator at the Cornucopia Project in Peterborough, said, “From my own experience, part of this stems from the book that Richard Louv wrote, ‘The Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder.’” Louv’s book illustrates how the “wired generation” is suffering both emotionally and physically from lack of time spent in nature. Wyzga said she believes his writing, “really brought the conversation to the forefront nationwide.”

In response, the trend of nature-based and farm-to-school programs has been taking off. The Cornucopia Project in Peterborough is a perfect example. As Wyzga put it, one of the organization’s primary focuses is “getting the kids into the outdoors and getting their hands into the soil.” With both classroom and outdoor-based components, they’re working to connect children with the land and help them understand where their food comes from.

At eight different schools, they integrate curriculum about the natural world by tying it to academic standards from a range of subjects. They also help schools create their own gardens so children can actively participate in the process of planting, nurturing, harvesting and tasting fresh foods.

The Cornucopia Project is just one of many local organizations doing this kind of work. Similar programs are bringing children to nature and fresh foods to their schools in Keene, Brattleboro, and many other communities.

In Windham County, Vt., Food Connects supports farm-to-school programs and has seen similar growth.

“The word has gotten out, and we in the farm-to-school movement have gotten better at it,” said Richard Berkfield, executive director of Food Connects. “Farm-to-school makes sense to everyone. It’s a win-win on so many levels. Hands-on learning engages and inspires students. Improved meal programs increase participation which improves nutrition and educational outcomes for students. Local purchasing supports the local economy and engages students with the community. I can go on and on…”

Wyzga said, “(the students) are so responsive to things that are growing. There’s so much delight and excitement around having their hands in the dirt.” She noted, “For a lot of kids this is a brand new experience.”

She has found that their willingness to try new things is remarkable. For instance, one day, second graders from the ConVal school district were observing the bugs in their garden as part of a unit about insects. They found bees, ants, squash bugs, spiders and worms, sparking lots of conversation about all of their roles in the garden.

They also came across cabbage moth worms on the kale, and after learning that they had been munching on the plants and excreting, the students helped pluck the moths off and toss them away from the garden. Even so, at the end of class, they still wanted to eat some kale.

“That’s an amazing thing to me when that happens,” Wyzga said.

Berkfield agreed, “Most kids truly enjoy trying new food, and will most certainly eat anything they have participated in growing or eating. Getting outside and learning about the food they eat in a garden is really exciting. There are endless stories of students of all ages not wanting to get "dirty", but then deeply engaging in the garden work and finding it rewarding.”

Though there are plenty of moments like those, outdoor learning comes with its own set of challenges as well. Teaching children how to be in a learning situation outside is part of the process.

“They’re building skills. They’re learning how to manipulate the soil. They’re learning how to handle an earthworm gently and respectfully. They’re learning how to manipulate seeds,” said Wyzga. For the young children that her organization works with, she said, “That’s right in line with where they are developmentally.”

Moving forward, the Cornucopia Project would like to offer more family-centered opportunities. Joyce Carroll, who oversees the organization’s community programs, said, “The kids are learning to grow with us, and they’re bringing that home.”

Wyzga said they’d like to help parents develop an awareness of what’s out there to be tried. For that reason, they’re planning to bring nutrition and cooking classes to the new Peterborough Community Center.

Their efforts are demonstrating the restorative power of reconnecting children with the land – a mission that could not be more relevant than it is now for America’s children.

“We have a vision of Food Connects continuing to go deeper and serving schools in our immediate area, while expanding our reach to provide appropriate support to others, wherever they may be,” said Berkfield. “We want to build on our strong network of producers, food service directors, restaurants to get the word out about the opportunities and challenges in our food system as a whole.”

Farm-to-School Resources:

Food Connects supports farm-to-school programs at schools in the Brattleboro area. The nonprofit organization’s mission is to cultivate healthy farm and food connections in classrooms, cafeterias and communities in and around Windham County and southern Windsor County, Vt. For more information, visit www.FoodConnects.org.

Monadnock Farm and Community Coalition is a regional coalition whose mission is to support a sustainable food system by cultivating community action and building collaborations to implement effective programs, projects and policies. For more information, visit www.mfccoalition.org.

Windham Farm and Food is an aggregation and distribution service in Windham County, Vt., for locally produced farm products and other foods. For more information, visit www.windhamfarmandfood.org.

Monadnock Menus is an aggregation and distribution service in Cheshire County, N.H., for locally produced farm products and other foods. For more information, visit www.monadnockmenus.org.

Cheshire County Conservation District represents the conservation interests and priorities of the county, for the county. As such, the conservation district is fully vested in the preservation and enhancement of agriculture and its place and role within the community at large. For more information, visit www.cheshireconservation.org.