Kids Learn What They Eat

Loriee Evans
July 8, 2002

Like a lot of nutrition-conscious parents, Jean Miller buys fresh produce every week for her family of five. Unlike most shoppers, though, Miller picks up her lettuce and strawberries from coolers and canvas bags at a neighbor's house down the street. Miller and her neighbor are "CSAers." Along with about 75 others, they buy shares of organically farmed produce from Silver Creek Farm, a community supported agriculture farm near their Cleveland, Ohio homes.

Most families purchase a regular share in the farm and receive a weekly supply of produce, but the Miller family buys a working share every year—and really gets their hands dirty. Their labor helps pay for the produce, as they help with weeding, picking, transplanting, packing and transporting on the farm.

"I love growing things, but we live in the suburbs with shade trees, and we can't grow a lot of stuff," says Miller, who learned about Silver Creek Farm eight years ago at her local food co-op. At the CSA, her children get to see how food is cultivated, including how animal droppings are used for fertilizer, which is spread on the ground to grow new food.

"My oldest son is 12 and has grown up at the farm," Miller says. "My 10-year-old is a working corps member who's out there picking and weeding with me."

Molly Bartlett, who owns Silver Creek Farm with her husband, Ted, says that community participation can come at all different levels, whether it's fieldwork or picnic potlucks on the farm or trading food at the drop-off sites. "The real connection for kids comes from being able to tell where their food comes from, they can connect it to a farm, to a farmer," Bartlett says.

From spring through fall, Silver Creek Farm grows greens, strawberries, blueberries, green beans, carrots, tomatoes, potatoes and other fruits and vegetables. Each week, the farm delivers in-season produce to drop-off points throughout Cleveland. Whereas most kids think food comes from "the supermarket," community supported agriculture helps them understand where it really comes from and who grows it.

A Yearning for the Land
Community supported agriculture came to the United States in the mid-1980s, adapted from a European agriculture model. By bringing families to the farm and building relationships among farmers, consumers and communities, the CSA concept fills a gap between the consumer and the people on the land, according to Jerry DeWitt, interim director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Sustainable Agriculture Program.

"There are many people who grew up on a farm, or they're one generation removed, and we remember our parents on the farm," says DeWitt. "There's a yearning to connect to the land and the farm."

Others apparently share Miller and DeWitt's yearning. About 1,000 CSA farms were scattered across the United States and Canada in early 1999; DeWitt estimates that number has grown to between 1,500 and 2,000 today. "I think there's going to be a lot of continued growth because it doesn't take a lot of land to start a CSA," he says. "With increased urbanization, there's access to consumers, and with today's lifestyle, people are looking for a connection," De Witt says. "CSA is going to be popular where it can be nestled near a community and where it doesn't negatively affect the environment."

Dedication to the environment and sustainable land stewardship are strong themes among CSA farmers. Silver Creek Farm grows without using synthetic chemicals or fertilizers, in order to protect the environment and water supply. "I also want to produce safe food, which seems to be in short supply," says Bartlett.

"When you walk into the supermarket and see the produce, you rarely know where it's grown. You'd be horrified to know that the red peppers were grown in a third world country with chemicals that were banned in the U.S.," Bartlett says. "So American companies ship the chemicals to, say, Chile, where they're sprayed on peppers. The banned chemicals finally come back to the U.S., where you buy them as red peppers."

Know What You Eat
DeWitt estimates that at least 80 percent of CSA operations are probably certified organic. But he thinks that a farm's official organic certification isn't the selling point to the CSA purchaser, because as he points out, "You know the farm family, you helped decide what to grow, you know how things are grown." In other words, CSA shareholders are involved in farm decision-making, and they're often intimately familiar with the farm's growing practices.

If you think it's important to eat organically, then it's also important to eat locally, according to Bartlett. "Buying from a supermarket doesn't tell you when the food was harvested or how long it was stored," she says. "A carrot may be grown in California and be on your dinner table 11 months later, but it's lost a lot of its nutrition."

You should also buy locally to support community businesses, Bartlett says. For example, many CSAs raise livestock and offer additional shares of products like chicken, turkey, lamb or wool. Participating families can buy value-added items, like hand-knit sweaters from Silver Creek Farm wool. "It enhances the local economy to give Suzy the money to knit sweaters from the wool," says Bartlett. "We connect the face to the knitting: Suzy knit this for you."

Farmers mainly look to the CSA model as a stable source of income, which allows them to plan the planting season, buy seeds, and purchase equipment. Kids benefit, too, by learning about where food comes from and by connecting food to a farm and farmer. Ultimately, though, Miller thinks the whole community benefits because CSAs offer a way for small farmers to survive.

As modern agriculture consolidates into larger and larger mass production farms, the small farm is a dwindling link to a past when people weren't such strangers to each other.

"We all crave to be better connected to the people who serve us," says Bartlett. "People talk about knowing their old pharmacist, who knew their names and their medical histories. We hope to offer that kind of connection."

Additional resources:

  • Learn more from the national database of CSAs.

Why Buy Organic for Kids? 

 

While CSAs offer fresh produce and even some meats, even dedicated CSAers need to fill out their dinner tables at a grocery store. Here's why you should consider buying organic:

  • Organic Is Good for Children's Health—Pound for pound kids eat more calories, drink more water, and eat fewer food types than adults, making them more vulnerable to unsafe foods. Kids' favorites like apples, strawberries, peaches and grapes harbor heavy pesticide residues, so buy organic versions—or at least wash conventional produce vigorously.
  • Organic Farming Is Good for Land & Water—David Pimental, a Cornell University researcher, found that more than 99 percent of pesticides miss the target pest—and run off into the environment instead, contaminating groundwater and harming wildlife. Organic farms use sustainable growing and land management practices.
  • Organic Foods Are Easy to Find—The organics industry grew from $78 million in 1980 to over $9 billion in 2001, making it easy to find organic foods these days. Shop the produce and natural foods sections at the supermarket, or head for natural food stores like national chains Wild Oats and Whole Foods.
  • Organic Labeling Makes It Easier—The U.S. Department of Agriculture makes it even easier for consumers to buy organic this October: look for the round "USDA Organic" seal on packaging.

 

 

Loriee Evans is a writer living in St. Louis, Missouri. Visit her Web site, www.naturewriter.net, for more information.


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