By Madison Monroe
Over the past six to eight generations, America’s population has moved from rural to urban living. In 1800, only five percent of Americans lived in cities. By 2000, that number had grown to 80%. Arkansas is still considered a rural state with only 55% of its population living in cities. Because so many of us still live so close to the land, you may think the children in this article live on Mars. But they don’t. They live in Little Rock and they are no different than an alarming number of urban children.
They don’t know where food comes from.
On the television show ‘Food Revolution,’ Jamie Oliver gave a food quiz to 17 year old high school students. When asked where does cheese come from and given the choice of a cow, macaroni or the moon, the students picked macaroni. Just as unbelievable, they answered that sausage comes from a plant. When Jamie brought fresh vegetables to a first grade classroom, not one single child could identify any of them.
Today’s urban children believe food comes from the grocery store or the restaurant where they see their parents buy it. If you ask where the store got the food, you will be met with blank stares. For many children breakfast comes from a box, lunch from a microwave and dinner from a drive thru.
This is disturbing for a variety of reasons. Firstly, nutrition directly effects health, brain development and physical growth. Secondly, preparing food and eating together promotes socialization in a world full of people isolated by electronics. Lastly, if children don’t know where their food comes from or form some sort of relationship with the natural world, how are they to make wise decisions as adults, when they become the caretakers of Mother Earth?
Little Rock’s Dunbar Middle School piloted a gardening program in 2005 and won a national award for it. UALR partnered with five elementary schools in a nutrition and gardening program and the results showed a 25% decrease in the student Body Mass Index, an average increase of 25% in Math and Literacy scores and a 52% increase in the number of vegetables eaten by students.
In 2012, Little Rock native Nathanael Wills decided to offer a balance to the urbanization of the Pulaski Heights Elementary school students. He began his hands-on gardening class. With a degree in Cultural Anthropology, he knew little of agriculture. What he learned was self taught using internet research, trial and error and conversation with old farmers.
Today Wills raves about the impact gardening has had on the children. “I see the value of getting them outside. There is a direct correlation of learning and movement with young students. With recess being cut back, it is essential to initiate programs designed to keep kids active. Also, getting dirty is good for you!” says Wills. The “Hygiene Hypothesis” theory agrees. It states that a lack of childhood exposure to germs increases a child’s susceptibility to diseases like asthma and allergies by suppressing the development of the immune system.
Wills has seen his gardening students develop a sense of pride from the work they do in the garden and an openness to try new foods that they normally wouldn’t eat. He says his hope is that they will learn that healthy food means real food and real food means food without ingredient labels.
Wills notes that gardening is the one class that the students get thanked for their work. It creates a different kind of bond. They feel valued and important. They see the food from seeds to the market, where they sell it. They experience the hope of planting and the reward of harvesting. They learn that to dig is to discover, and they internalize Amy Stewart’s famous quote, “Garden is a verb, not a noun.”
Nathanael Wills knows what his garden is growing: character, pride, community, teamwork, maturity, responsibility, social skills and life-long nutrition.
What does your garden grow?
Learn more at the Pulaski Heights Elementary Garden website.