Sunday, June 8, 2014

The Kids Are Going to be Alright

Everyone generally has some purpose behind what they have chosen to do for a living. Some choose their career for fame and fortune – no, not too many but it is a purpose for some. Certainly I don’t know many people who choose what they do for a living that have done so because it’s going to make them famous or rich.

They often choose it because a particular skill needed came naturally to them; it's what their parents encouraged them to do; it’s in an environment they enjoy being in; or it supports some specific cause they feel strongly about.

I’d have to say that, for those of you who do not know my story, the latter is what drew me into this world of farming and local food. I’ve always been an advocate for the little guy getting a fair shake, the underdog you could say. (In fact, that was one of my favorite cartoons growing up.)

And, the latter is what keeps me persistent about developing this place into a sustainable food production “hub” for the community of south east Dallas County where I’ve lived nearly ever since I moved to Texas some 22 or so years ago.

I don’t know too many who own and run small farms for a living that do this solely for the money either. Although, it can seem to bring “fast” cash after only a few hours of selling at a market. But let me tell you, if you have put your full time self into making sure those crops are selected, planted, cared for and harvested with dedication and purpose, it doesn’t feel like “fast” cash. The only part that is fast is the rate at which one runs out of one dollar bills for change…..

Having come from a family that sat down to eat most all of our dinners together as a family, (and even breakfast and lunch was served at home, in the kitchen at the table with my brother), I feel pretty privileged compared to many kids that I hear about today, who eat on the fly. My mom was able to stay home to plan and prepare balanced meals, three times a day, seven days a week. We weren't wealthy, she just cut lots of coupons and shopped sales like everyone else. And eating “out” was reserved for special occasions, or, a family owned pizzeria's pizza was delivered with the Sunday night family TV programs. That, incidentally, was also the only time I remember being allowed to drink soda. At home or in most cases, at all. It just wasn’t served to children that much as I remember. Not that those artificially flavored/colored, sugary fruit drinks that left u with brightly colored smile all over your face were much better for us; but even those were not common in our diet. It was OJ and milk for breakfast; milk for lunch and dinner. We were growing kids. We didn’t drink coffee, frozen or otherwise, or soda. It stunted your growth! Ok, ok, but that's what we were told.

I also learned to enjoy a wide variety of vegetables in my meals as a kid. Granted, often they were frozen and not garden fresh; but I lived in my grandmother's apartment building which had a concrete slab for a backyard. We didn’t have a huge garden in our yard from which my mom could pluck fresh our side dishes and salads. (An option I do now have that I find quite cool.)
But we were fed everything from Artichokes, thanks to a Sicilian grandma, to Zucchini. We missed a few letters in between like kale, Swiss Chard, turnips, and various others I suppose. But overall, I feel like I developed a wide pallet for produce. And cook as she did, my mom was a simple cook. Not a lot of fancy sauces or seasonings. I knew what Brussels sprouts tasted like, and I liked them! Cabbage was great to me – until they turned it into “sourkraut”! And I remember her growing beans or peas on the chain link fence along the alley and grabbing some on my way out of the gate to go play. That sweet flavor didn’t need any seasoning according to my taste buds.

And, much to the dismay and horror of many, all winter long we scooped the poop of our building’s 3 canine residents right into the usually snow covered opening in the concrete slab that became my mom’s spring garden. The tomato plants, cucumbers and corn she grew didn’t seem to mind that it wasn't on someone's approved list of items "ok to compost". 

The stories about kids’ diets that I hear nowadays though, don’t reflect the same kind of food variety filled options that my memories are full of. Many a modern day kid is seen sipping on a $4 coffee "ice cream shake", or even a regular hot cup of java; soda like it’s water, all while toting a bag of some kind of cardboard-like artificially flavored snack “food” or the less than prime parts of an animal shoved into an artificial casing wrapped in sugary filled dough slathered with preservative filled condiments. (Yes, I've been told I can be a bit dramatic, but I'm making a point.) 

I was recently told about a young boy who was participating in some kind of after-school or summer program and had been asked if he liked squash by one of the adult volunteers. The child looked up, puzzled a bit, and replied, “What’s squash?”.  The adult inquiring probably had the same puzzled look on his face and asked another question of the child about their normal meal contents. To which this child responded that his busy mom would bring home a loaf of bread and “cheese”. He would make himself 2 cheese sandwiches for breakfast, lunch and again at dinner. He did however get to decide whether he wanted mustard or “mayo”.


How do our children function on such diets? How do they grow? How are they not sick or full of allergies? How can we expect them to make good food choices later in life?

A diet of no one at home to nurture their mind or body, pretty much sets them up for specific issues later in life. And while many will be able to overcome these issues, many do not. If they’re never taught how to eat properly and why they should want to, much less how to prepare, heck, how to IDENTIFY a vegetable; how can they be expected to do this for themselves as adults. Or, if they have them, for their children? And so the cycle we seem stuck in today, had begun.

We were the first of the “latch-key” kids, learning to grow up on our own without a lot of parental benefits often afforded those with 2 folks around. But at least we had regular food in our fridge to choose from because before she went away, my mom taught me how to cook, make a grocery list and shop for food. Real food. And, they still taught "basic foods and nutrition" in high school. Many kids our age had healthy bodies despite the broken or dysfunctional homes some came from. But when you have neither, a healthy diet or a healthy family of origin, the odds have really been stacked against you. And it’s not always something folks really understand the consequences of until many years later into their lives. If ever.

This is something I feel pretty strongly about and something it seems is only slowly starting to be better understood. While the first 13 years of my childhood were filled with good meals, there were things going on around me that kept me from being able to say I came from a “Walton’s” type family life. And my younger brother, only 7 at the time we earned our place as a statistic, only had me to look to for the limited guidance I could give him regarding life. At least he ate well most of the time, but how could he really absorb a real sense of why it was important to feed himself well if I hadn't really been taught it yet?

At first we thought it was all A-ok to be on our own, because hey, now we could make those cool, sugary pop out of the tube cinnamon rolls for breakfast, whenever we wanted. Not just when it was our birthday or something. (IF our mom even ever made them. This may have been a food we discovered from our Saturday morning cartoon binges, and now shopping unsupervised, took home with us.) But even to us, Chef boy R Dee got old and we remembered certain things we had grown used to eating. Like artichokes and tuna casserole with peas. Our taste buds wouldn't let us get away with this silliness all of the time.

Thankfully, I knew more or less how to cook, and so I did my best to follow old menus my mom had previously used, with the aid of the cookbooks she made margin notes in; most of which are still on my bookshelf today. Artichokes, corn on the cob, green beans, and various other vegetables still adorned my aged 14, 15 year old prepared lunches and dinners. And breakfast was still milk and OJ – even though my brother insisted on Captain Crunch peanut butter cereal a lot. I wasn't really equipped to know how to reason with an 8 year old, so he often got his way.

But what about those kids who aren’t blessed with 13, or even 7 years, of good eating habits and guidance to fall back on? Maybe that six-a-day cheese sandwich child’s mom grew up on microwave popcorn and “cheese-food” sandwiches herself. This is the sort of situation that breaks my heart and makes me cry. Literally. And if I accomplish nothing else with this 14 acres I call Eden's, I will make sure that I do everything I can to show as many children as I can that good food can be just as cool as they think those pop out of a tube rolls and cardboard salt sticks in the shiny foil bags are. Adults, once educated with more information than they may have had previously, usually have a bit more power over their choices. And providing them with opportunities to gather that information is also something on my agenda. But a child is pretty much at the mercy of what’s in the pantry or fridge at home; whether or not he or she knows a cucumber sandwich would be better for them. And if they don't know how to prepare something, they're likely going for that bag of chips - even if it's not the only thing available.

Seeing kids grow up overweight to the point it has critically affected their health, not just their self esteem due to normal childhood teasing, is not fair. And I’m all about fair and justice, remember? At least give someone a chance to do things differently. So many times we choose the easiest solution, instead of the best one. Nothing here against busy moms and cheese sandwiches, but there has to be a better solution than that. Sometimes it takes nudging a person in a different direction, but it takes a community to raise a child. Right?

Our media bombards them at every turn. In our schools, on billboards as they ride down the street on their way to school or soccer practice – fast “food”, snack “food”, and anything other than images of healthy fruits and vegetables, bombard their minds everywhere they turn. If you have not ever been given anything other than false information, how can you be expected to choose differently?

Many kids, and I daresay adults alike, are not only bombarded with negative media about food choices, but are also under constant pressure to “go-go-go” without much time to let their natural instincts even try to kick in and encourage them to go for the apples instead of the fried salty snack. Quiet time is something used as a punishment – not a rewarding opportunity to listen to their little bodies tell them what it wants.

In the spirit of this goal, I have had it as part of my business plan to develop a children’s educational program here at the farm ever since I decided to expand my business from a garden center to an agricultural operation. I always encouraged parents to include their kids in gardening classes, but now I was becoming even more aware of the need to not only teach them to play in the dirt, but to also play in the kitchen with what they pulled out of the dirt. 

So, enter in FARM CAMP. It’s my first attempt, as I am the full time grower here, it's my first opportunity actually, to offer something at a really organized level that is very pro-active towards connecting younger children with food. With nature. With themselves.

The woman who is bringing FARM CAMP to Eden’s this summer has a long history of working with kids, and from what I’ve seen, living at a pace of life that allows one to hear and respond rather than observe and react. I really think this is a great and important first step for not only the farm, but for up to 10 lucky kids who get to be the first ones through this inaugural program. Jennifer will move on to open her own children’s education facility, but my hope is that it has started the momentum towards a full time, year round children’s educational program here at Eden’s that will bring many, many kids face to face with a chicken, a carrot and a squash. Some, for their first time ever.

Seeing the smiles on their faces as they come here to my farm, without fail, brings one to mine. And it does wonders to make those long, hot or cold, wet or thirsty dry, days – worth every uncomfortable minute. 

We borrow this planet for a short time – and leave it to those not even thought about yet. I hope to do my part to not only keep this slice of nature healthy for whoever follows me, but to help bridge that gap of knowledge about a lot of things like healthy eating, that came about whenever our society seemed to stop choosing the solutions that build strong minds, bodies and families and going for easy or convenient, forgoing potential consequences.

Eat Your Food - Naturally!


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