Sitting at a table in Manhattan’s Chinatown for dim sum, I stared blankly at the the menu. It was in Chinese.The waitress smiled and tried to help by showing us plates of food, but nothing looked familiar. I ate a little from each dish we ordered, though I did not know what anything was. Is that meat? Is this a dumpling? What’s inside this? It was an adventure, but not one I really want to repeat.
At the boardwalk in Seaside Heights the food vendors all sell the same things. Pizza. Burgers. Sausage. Fries. Hot dogs. Steak and cheese. These same words flash up and down the boardwalk. Most of us prefer familiar food, and children prefer it most of all. Kids feel more comfortable eating something with a familiar face, and a backstory. Last week at one of our camp days a boy said, “I only like one food – mac and cheese.” New food is suspect. And our challenge, at America’s Grow a Row, is to overcome that resistance so that the children we serve will learn to love fruits and vegetables.
During our camp days on the farm, we harvest food with children from New Jersey’s cities. This summer we have picked green beans, nectarines, cucumbers, corn, and lettuce. We take a walk around the whole farm to show the children the plants growing, and teach them about the food we eat. For many, this is their first trip to a real farm. We stop along the way to talk, to ask and answer questions. Is that snow? What is the fence for? Are those apples? Tomatoes? Are those mangos? Avocados?
We ask the children to look carefully and think about the plants that they see. At each plant we ask them questions. What part of the plant do we eat? Is it a fruit or a vegetable? We smell basil plants. We lift up leaves to find vines or branches, grasshoppers or ladybugs. We discover a tiny cucumber growing from the base of a flower. One of our favorite places to stop is the broccoli patch. Did you know that broccoli tops bloom into bouquets of beautiful tiny yellow flowers? How is that for a backstory? This summer a small patch of broccoli bloomed at the farm, and it became a wonderful opportunity to show children broccoli in a new light. Did you know that we eat FLOWERS?
Preparing to set off on a farm tour with a group of children from Newark, I handed them bags.
“Here’s a bag for picking nectarines. Bring it with you.”
The first couple of children eyed me suspiciously. “What is a nectarine?”
“Do you like peaches?” I asked. “It’s like a peach, but without the fuzz.”
That was a mistake.
The disappointed children shook their heads. “I don’t eat peaches.”
So as I passed out the bags to the remaining children I said cheerily “Here is a bag for picking fruit off of trees.” Everyone likes to pick fruit off of trees!
The now excited children asked me, “What are we picking? Are we picking apples? Mangoes?”
I only answered, “It is a surprise.”
Intrigued, they eyed every tree in the orchard as we walked. They learned that apples aren’t in season yet, and that mangoes don’t grow in New Jersey. And they learned that ripe nectarines eaten right off of the tree are delicious. “These are nectarines? I love nectarines!” Surprise!
After a day at the farm, children will find fruits and vegetables have a friendly face. They see rows and rows of trees, heavily laden with purple, green, or red fruit. They see the flowers, the fragile stems, the tiny fruit forming. The children learn to pick corn and green beans carefully, with two hands, so that the plant doesn’t break. They learn that food is most delicious when it has just been picked. We give the food a familiar face, a story. It tastes better that way. The boy who only liked mac and cheese discovered last week that he loves corn, fresh picked in New Jersey.