Inviting Kids "to the Table"

I work in schools, and a recent highlight has been helping out with the kindergarten classes during lunch. I'm surprised I didn't predict this, given how much I love hanging out with kids!

It took a few weeks to learn the routines--washing hands, moving quickly through the long lunch lines, turning in their lunch cards--but soon they had them down. In the meantime, I had also learned their names. One day I mentioned to darling Catherine that my name was also Kathryn, and thus began the spontaneous choruses of, "Kathryn, sit here!" "No, sit here!" "Hi, Kathryn!"

I also come with a healthy tolerance for spilled milk--opening those cartoons is a bear--and reminders to try the overcooked main courses and naked vegetables slices. Sadly, their diverse palates--as diverse as their names--frequently turn away the cafeteria fare, even with its healthier whole wheat breads and daily veggies and fruit servings. My sadness at watching the waste is palpable, and I also worry about kids getting through a day of learning on a few crackers and half a carton of milk.

So I started bringing in apples. I'd bought a case of a beautiful heirloom variety--Tsugaru--after it was voted the favorite at a local farmers market tasting. Every day I top off my lunch bag with 4-5 apples, drag along a cutting board and knife, and the kids inhale them! If they ask, I cut up the little lunch apples, too. The kids' fruit quotient soon doubled, and soars if I sit down to eat with them! I watched Jefferson eat fruit for the first time--a kid who one day drank a few sips of milk and ate the contents of a ketsup packet. With his forefinger.

To be fair, they always eat the bananas, even when they're green.

Today I brought a head of romaine. One by one I pulled the beautiful leaves from a ziplock bag, dipped them into a little cup of ranch dressing, and commented that I like my lettuce leaves whole. And one by one they followed my lead into their own little dressing cups. This time I watched Jefferson eat a vegetable for the first time, tearing his leaves into little dip-size pieces. The entire head of lettuce was gone in 5 minutes.

All the while, the kids were playing their new game of switching seats. "I'm the new Ralph!" "I'm the new Eduardo!" "I'm the new Jessica!" "I'm the new Mussie!" "Kathryn, sit here!" I shagged them back to their seats, chuckling at their ingenuity.

I think I've figured it out: Good food, good company, a few surprises.


Food Literacy

I was shocked! Kids who confuse a tomato with a potato, who think an eggplant is a pear, who think a beet is celery. If you haven't seen Jamie Oliver's TED talk and his wish to teach every child about food, take the time!

On the heels of that surprise, this week the following data came across my screen: The number of corporate logos the average America can identify: more than 1000. The average number of native plants or animals that the average American can identify: fewer than 10.

I can't imagine anyone who would think this is good news. The sadder news is that the average adults among us are doing little better than the kids.

Enter a new kind of literacy to our lexicon: food literacy. Philip and June, from Readers to Eaters, offer a simple definition: Food literacy is knowing what we eat and where it comes from. And as their tag line reads: Food literacy from the ground up!

And here is another: Food literacy is the ability to organize one’s everyday nutrition in a self-determined, responsible and enjoyable way.

But learning to identify plants, say just edible plants, is not so challenging! I've spent time with 5th graders at the beautiful environmental learning camp on Bainbridge Island, Islandwood. In just minutes the kids learned to identify and how to pick and break down the leaves of stinging nettles so that the stinging hairs were rendered harmless. Most of them tasted small pieces, and a few picked and ate leaves on every forest walk.

Next came a horticultural walk--some edible plants and some not. Our instructor, Derek, set off on a trail 2 minutes before I released the kids one by one. Each received a laminated card with information about a nearby plant--salal, evergreen huckleberry, licorice fern, salmonberry, big leaf maple, Douglas fir. The first student learned three facts about his plant, and taught it to each successive child who moved on along the path to find his/her card and do the same. After this 30 minute experience, the kids recognized their own plants and some of the others. 30 minutes, on one afternoon.

Time for us all to think more carefully about what we eat and where it comes from!