Can Your Child Identify a Tomato? Teaching Kids About Food

I recently watched a preview from Jamie Oliver’s new show Food Revolution where first grade children were unable to identify fruits and vegetables like tomatoes, potatoes, cauliflower, eggplant, etc. While I didn’t find it shocking, I thought it was quite sad. It drives the point home that as a society we are, as Oliver points out in his TED talk (which is absolutely worth 20 minutes of your time), very disconnected from our food and where it comes from. Sure, kids eat french fries and ketchup, but do they know they come from potatoes and tomatoes? He also points out that the current generation of children may be the first in two centuries to have a shorter life expectancy than their parents. Of course after that I had to quiz my five-year-old Ava (to make sure I wasn’t being overly critical) and she knew what everything was except the beet (which we don’t eat because I think they taste like dirt).


Photo credit: Jacki-dee

Ava’s kindergarten class is currently doing a section about food. My daughter already knows a fair bit about what she eats since she’s been gardening with me since before she could walk. We also have friends who have chickens and we frequently visit the farmers’ market. I don’t know what specifically her class is being taught about food, but I imagine it’s pretty light and upbeat (i.e. no information about factory farming, genetically modified organisms, etc.). That’s OK with me though. I feel like you can only give five-year-olds so much information. They have plenty of time to learn more about the current farming practices in the United States when they get older. I have been impressed that they made butter in school by shaking a jar full of cream and will be making applesauce as well, and are even hatching baby chickens in an incubator in the classroom. They also took a field trip to a supermarket. A trip to a community garden would have been nicer, but there’s not much to see at a garden in Colorado in early March. Regardless, I’m glad that her school is teaching young children about food and hope that others around the country are as well.

Earlier this week I finally sat down to watch Food, Inc. for the very first time. My kids, ages three and five, who were not yet in bed sat down too, ready to watch along side me. I had a conversation with myself in my head for a minute. Should I let them watch it? I haven’t yet seen it so I have no idea what to expect. But it’s about food and where food comes from, and that’s educational, right? I decided to turn it on and keep the remote in my hand in case anything looked like it might get too gory or inappropriate for them.

Ava watched it quite intently and asked me several questions. Julian, my 3-year-old, watched bits and pieces while he wasn’t busy playing. Actually, one of the things he started playing (after watching a scene where a factory chicken farmer collects dead chickens was “throw the dead chickens (stuffed animals) into a bucket.” It was rather fascinating to see him reenact that scene.

At one point, I stopped the movie to gauge Ava’s reaction and ask her how watching it made her feel. She replied, “Sad and happy. Sad because people have to eat the chickens. Happy because I’m learning.” That reinforced my decision to let her watch it. I was very happy to hear that learning made her happy.

We ended up watching only half of the movie together before it was time for the kids to go to bed and they missed some of the more gruesome scenes like the lame cows, pig slaughterhouse and the scene of the traditional farmer and his workers killing and processing chickens (which really wasn’t that bad). After seeing it all now though, I think they would have been OK with watching it.

Food, Inc. is rated PG “for some thematic material and disturbing images” and that seems very fair. I wouldn’t let children watch it on their own, but I think if they watch with a parent it’s a great learning opportunity for all parties involved.

This spring we will start getting chickens (to eat) from a local farmer and I think a field trip of sorts to visit the farm and the chickens is in order. We’re also hoping to get chickens or maybe ducks of our own for eggs once we move and have more land. The more I can expose my children to where their food comes from, the better. We’re not perfect. We go out to eat and even eat *gasp* fast food and junk food from time to time, but my kids know what a tomato is, they see me cooking and gardening and help me with those things. All of that, I believe, will help establish healthy patterns that will last a lifetime and will hopefully keep them from becoming a statistic.

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Bit by the gardening bug

I’ve been working on honing my gardening skills for the past four years. In 2005, I participated in a couple community garden plots with a group of friends. That’s where Ava and I got our first taste of gardening. We liked it and we wanted more. :)

How’s this for a blast to the past?

In 2006 and 2007, not yet ready to commit to my own garden plot either in a community garden or my own backyard, I did some container gardening on my patio.

By 2008, I could stand it no longer and had to put in a “real” garden, so Jody and I cleared out a patch of grass in the backyard and I got to plant my first real garden on my own. I grew strawberries, tomatoes, zucchini, yellow crookneck squash, and green beans, as well as feverfew, sunflowers and chamomile. I planted everything way too close together because I was working with a very limited amount of space and totally underestimated how big everything would get. Still I got quite a bit of produce and thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

This year, once again feeling the next to expand, I was hoping to find another patch of space in my yard that gets a decent amount of sunlight to convert into another garden. (It’s both a blessing and a curse that most of our backyard is shaded by the large trees that grow back there. It’s great because I don’t have to worry about the kids getting sun burned, but it’s a pain because there’s very little space to grow anything that requires sunlight.) After much deliberation (and cursing as we kept running into large tree roots), Jody and I decided on putting in two raised garden beds. Jody built the beds for me using both new and used wood. It would’ve been nice and significantly cheaper to get all used wood, but we didn’t have time to search for it for that long.

As of tonight, I have three little gardens in my yard (woohoo!) – the one that was already in place, and two raised beds, as well as some potted plants. So far I have planted seven varieties of tomatoes and two varieties of eggplant (all started by my friend Julie), basil, strawberries, five raspberry plants (but only 2 are currently growing), as well as cucumbers, yellow crookneck squash and zucchini that I planted from seed. I’m still itching to plant more (like green beans, carrots, greens, and watermelon at the very least), but I’m not sure I’m going to find the space for them this year, though I may be able to figure something out to sneak of few of them in. ;)

Today while Jody and Ava wheeled dirt to fill up the second garden bed, Julian and I collected worms (as I had done with both kids earlier in the week) to add to the dirt. My kids love worms and had no qualms about retrieving them from the compost bin (where hundreds, if not thousands, live).

Digging out worms: Yes, the kids are saying “Ewwww,” but only because I told them to. ;)

And now, for those of you who are curious, here’s a little tour of my garden. :) (FYI – These pics were taken with my iPhone so they aren’t the best quality.)

A view of my first garden (that we made in 2008), as well as the clothes line and compost bin.

Inside the garden this year: strawberries and feverfew (and raspberry plants growing in the pots outside the garden)

Inside the garden this year: more strawberries and cucumbers

The new raised garden bed: tomatoes and basil

The second raised garden bed: eggplant, tomatoes and squash

More pots on the patio with raspberries, volunteer dill and a yellow pear tomato.

I’m quite pleased with all that we’ve managed to get in this year and am thankful to Jody for building my raised beds for me. All of this digging in the dirt has been really good for me. I remember having this feeling last spring/summer too – gardening is very therapeutic. Now that the gardens are in we can again focus on finishing up redoing the backyard – a project we started about a month ago and still have a fair bit of work to do. It will be wonderful when it’s completed and I can sit back and enjoy it, of course while still getting my hands dirty as I dig out weeds.

Gardening is one of those things that seems to be in my blood. My mom always had a garden when I was growing up and I remember helping her pick green beans and eating some of them right off the plant. I hope my kids have fond memories of gardening with me (and playing with worms) someday too and decide that gardening is something they want to pursue and share with their kids as well.