Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Dreaming farming, talking farming: one thousand new beet eaters

I don't want to be overly romantic about farming. I grew up on a farm after all. I know about the hard, dangerous, and sometimes boring work involved in farming. But experience and evidence from the Edible Schoolyards shows that helping to grow food does have an impact on students. I wanted to know if Michial has also seen this with college students.

What changes have you noticed in the students who work with you?
Aside from students service learning experience I have a small number of work study students and volunteers with whom I work more closely. From that population I have found that students who start at the farm, regardless of their background, tend to stay with the farm throughout the rest of their college career. Several who have graduated have gone on and are either gardening or raising livestock at their homes.

About one quarter of my work study students over the past six years have come from an inner-city background.... those students become the most devoted to the farm and are most vocal about their aspirations to take their skills with them back home to promote healthy eating/living.

Alice Waters has noticed that the elementary school students who participate in Edible Schoolyard are more interested in various foods, more willing to try new foods. I know you farm with them, and maybe don't often eat with students, but am wondering if you've been able to detect any such effect with your farm volunteers?

I do eat with the students and I have absolutely noticed a difference. We obviously work most closely with the college students, but we also host  a number of local public school groups out for field trips and the change is noticeable across the board. I regularly hear from our public school teachers that their students are trying 'new' (I use that word in quotes because many of the foods that we are labeling as 'new' are in fact culturally old and have simply been neglected in the tsunami of processed and convenience foods that have deluged our markets) vegetables.

One of my personal favorite foods to reintroduce to younger generations is the beet! Beets are loaded with natural sugars (in fact it is the beet from which we derive our processed granulated sugar) and incredibly diverse. We have, at various on campus festivals, successfully convinced nearly one thousand middle school students to try beets with splendid results.

In our own cafeteria here at the college I am pleased on a daily basis to see our students selecting steamed chard, a kohlrabi based dish, or something equally uncommon. This time of year roasted root vegetables are commonplace in our kitchen. Parsnips, turnips, and rutabagas appear on many student plates in the dining room.

 Getting students to try 'new' vegetables was many times easier than convincing them to try meat dishes occupied by livestock they once knew. Starting in 2009 we began raising and processing all of the turkeys used for the thanksgiving meal here at the college. The students have their hands in every step of the process from picking up the day old chicks to plucking, eviscerating and finally handing off the finished birds to the chef (this is all done in a state inspected facility of course). The turkeys led to lambs, the lambs to goats, the goats to rabbits. This year we are raising the first of our own hogs.

That first year there was some pretty loud opposition to the 'inhumane act' of killing and eating our turkeys. The second year the program resumed by a resounding demand from the students, by the third year it was not only accepted, but expected. From time to time one can find gyros in the kitchen. On those days I will have students find me during the lunch service to ask, "Who are we eating today?" (While I make a point not to name the animals I can hardly stop the 900 students from giving them names).

Any question I haven't asked that you would like to answer?

 "What is your relationship with the food that you raise and eat?"
The simple answer is that one can only respect themselves as much as they respect what they are putting into their bodies. Here at the farm whether it is animal or vegetable, nothing is a number, or a commodity. The sheep, the carrots, the eggs, the corn, even the grass that feeds much of our livestock are all living things and exist in a system that we are part of and not above or outside of. All of these things deserve our respect and should be/are treated with the utmost care.

We live in a culture where we want to be provided with the freshest, safest, highest quality foods, but we often can't make the time to become intimate with it and where it comes from or how it is raised and what impact that makes on the planet for the coming generations. This is something that I think we can change through educating our children who will educate their parents [bold mine, jbm].

Knowing your food and knowing the farmer(s) that raise it are the best possible avenues to solving many of environmental and health conundrums that we face today.

Alice Waters and Michial Russell  are in California and Maine--about as geographically separate as they can be, but they are neighbors in philosophy, in believing in the importance of kids knowing about growing food and all of us knowing where our food comes from.

Thanks Michial for taking the time to answer my questions. Thanks dear friend  Liz (director of student counseling at St. Joseph's College) for setting up this interview. Thanks St. Joseph's College for the great work you are sponsoring--and the photos. 

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