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Grass Roots

By Lee Erica Elder

Innovative Food Education Programs Empower Communities to Take Nutrition Into Their Own Hands

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The Brooklyn Grange rooftop farm seves as an incubator of knowledge for children in the City Growers education program as they examine insects and plants that they have never encountered.

Nutrition education is changing, plate by plate. It is happening around the country—on rooftop farms, at food tastings and demonstrations, farmers’ markets and community chef training classes. Increasingly, community food education programs offer nutrition and wellness learning through interactive and innovative approaches. By addressing the distinct needs and circumstances of their respective populations, these grassroots initiatives teach the skills to grow, select, prepare, and understand food from the ground up, allowing participants to actively redefine their health and move beyond the statistics and stigma that often narrowly define their experiences. This systematic programming provides layers of tangible tools and support to inspire significant change in the way participants view food and nutrition, and the budgeting of their food dollars. The timing of the surge couldn’t be more appropriate: as of 2010, according to Feeding America, 17.2 million American households were food-insecure, meaning they were uncertain where their next meals would come from—the highest number ever recorded in the United States. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that 17 million American children—nearly one in four—have limited or uncertain access to affordable, nutritious food.

Rebecca Lemos and Lola Bloom began gardening with children at CentroNia, a community-based education center in the Columbia Heights area of Washington, D.C., while still in high school. Believing that all children and families should have access to natural spaces, the duo continued their work throughout college and post-graduation, and in 2003, City Blossoms was born. City Blossoms creates Community Green Spaces in low-income neighborhoods, offers workshops at schools and community organizations, and leads professional development trainings. “Our model uses the garden to teach artistic expression, healthy living skills, eco-literacy, and community building,” Bloom says. Kids participate in botanical drawing; prepare summer rolls, salsa, pesto, and mixed salads using freshly harvested ingredients; and through an Herbal Entrepreneurship program, cultivate, harvest, and use herbs to create products to sell at farmers’ markets. “Food is a common language that can be used to create strong community bonds—and it’s way easier to attract people to healthy habits through cooking than through lectures,” says Bloom. “We try to meet people where they are, think about food more holistically, and approach people from their interests, rather than hammering them over the head with what ‘should’ be in their diets.” City Blossoms created ten new school gardens in the last year, and counts children of program alumni among current participants.

Not far from City Blossoms is a national symbol of the growing movement for sustainability and healthy eating—the White House vegetable garden, which broke ground in 2009. First Lady Michelle Obama conceived of the all-organic garden—which also supplies food to local food banks and soup kitchens—when she felt her own daughters’ meals were not nutritious enough. For many D.C.-area children, the need for healthy food is dire—the area has the highest national rate (32.3%) of children in households without consistent access to food, according to Feeding America. According to D.C. Hunger Solutions, 43% of all D.C. school-age children are obese or overweight, 81% of children do not consume the USDA-recommended five fruits and vegetables a day, and estimated annual health care costs associated with obesity in D.C. are $372 million and rising. The White House Garden, Obama’s “Let’s Move!” campaign, and D.C.’s 2010 Healthy Schools Act—efforts sharing a focus on wellness education for children through a variety of means—bring national attention to the need for a re-imagining of the nutrition landscape.

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Garden on the Go of Indianapolis brings fresh and affordable produce to people who live in areas where fruits and vegetables are not easily accessible. Half of their stops serve seniors who are physically unable to travel and cannot afford produce in grocery stores.

In New York City, a unique nonprofit educational program, City Growers, thrives in an unconventional space at Brooklyn Grange, a one-acre rooftop farm in Long Island City. “Because ground-level space in the inner city is so limited and expensive, rooftop farms present a viable option for city farm and community garden projects,” says Gwen Schantz, co-founder. Visiting students, many from Title I schools (those with a high percentage of students from low-income families), explore farming, gardening, and their role in the environment. The experience is illuminating. “Kids are a little more connected to junk food that they eat than they are to vegetables and fruits,” says co-founder Anastasia Plakias. “They’re able to connect with junk food products on a brand level—there’s a face for McDonalds, Kentucky Fried Chicken—these are iconic brand representations. For many kids, pulling a carrot out of the ground is a brand-new experience. When they feel that carrot in their hands, feel the dirt give way underneath, then taste that really sweet fresh vegetable, it’s an eye-opener.” Plakias acknowledges that even among those who can afford to regularly buy healthy produce, a real appreciation of where food comes from “is sorely lacking in our community.” She hopes this hands-on experience inspires informed and independent eating choices. “It’s so important to connect kids with food at this stage of their lives because they are growing and their bodies are changing, and they are really curious about that. Kids are all about having tactile and visceral understanding of the world around them, and you can only impart so much information intellectually—they need to connect with the subject matter.” She shares a comment from a letter written by a visitor from Upward Bound, a college-prep program for students from low-income families: “I learned a lot, such that it is good to buy food locally, and that these rooftop farms help the economy of the community by giving people jobs, and there are little to no greenhouse gases or fossil fuels used.”

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