Last week, a Philadelphia student, about seven years old, cocked her head at a piece of fruit in the cafeteria. There was something strange about this pear — its stem was still attached to a small branch, and there was a leaf dangling to boot.
“Pears grow on trees?” she asked in wonderment.
There are dozens of moments like this one occurring daily in schools and community centers across Philadelphia, where a clutch of dedicated organizations work to bring healthy, whole foods into the lives of their neighbors.
I recently took a video camera onto the city streets to document the profound disconnect that exists about where our food comes from. (See some of that footage in the video below.) With so many packaged and processed foods filling the grocery aisles, we have successfully distanced ourselves from the knowledge that was once integral to our survival: how our food grows. Make no mistake, I’m guilty as charged: before asking strangers how a chickpea grows, I had to look into it myself.
That’s why, along with my husband, veteran journalist Mark Jolly, we’ve started How Does it Grow?, a food education initiative targeting agricultural illiteracy. At its core is a video series that tells the stories of our food from field to fork, one crop at a time. We’ve shot the first episode — mushrooms (lucky for us, “the mushroom capital of America” is an hour outside of Philadelphia) — and we’ve just launched a Kickstarter to complete the first season.
We hope these videos will be a companion piece to school gardens, lunchroom revolutions and nutrition programs across the country. Because you can’t take every child to the farm — but you can bring the farm to them (and their parents) through video. And let’s face it, video is the language of young people everywhere.
That aforementioned pear epiphany occurred at Community Partnership School in Philadelphia, a city of food innovators. This is just one elementary school where the Vetri Foundation for Children has introduced its Eatiquette program. Once a week, the students enter a transformed lunchroom where they serve each other platters of fresh food family-style. Kids take turns as “table captains”: wearing crisp white chef coats, they set the tables and serve up an unconventional menu, like fish tacos with cabbage slaw and fresh fruit for dessert.
Katherine Rapin, a dynamic Vetri intern, told me that she’s continuously stunned by the students’ enthusiasm for good food. She’s witnessed a child beg her table mate not to “hog” the salad (yes, salad), and a full lunchroom cheering when fresh orange slices were announced as dessert.
“Whole fresh fruit is not what these kids are getting at home,” Rapin told me. “And what they’re [eating] in school the rest of the days of the week is not that varied.”
Meanwhile, The Food Trust has helped get fresh produce from local farms into Philadelphia’s high schools. Working with the city’s Department of Health, they’ve even focused on training food service staff how to incorporate these ingredients into school lunches.
“They might not be used to working with kale or butternut squash,” said Deborah Bentzel, the Farm to School Program Manager for The Food Trust. “Because they’re not often seen in the cafeteria, and they’re not often cooking with these foods at home.”
The Food Trust is also working to inspire youth leadership through their HYPE campaign (“Healthy You. Positive Energy.”). Across the city, kids have come up with their own ways to bring healthy changes to their schools, according to Youth Leadership Coordinator Alyssa Simon. Bake sales have become smoothie sales. Kids who bring water to school instead of sugary drinks get their picture hung on the “Water Wall of Fame.”
Working with the Farm to School program, one group of kids delivered fresh spinach and strawberry salads to their classmates to get their feedback if it should go on the cafeteria menu.
Now all they need to know is how a strawberry grows.