Imagine if we, above all else, prioritized creating a more connected world. If we blend and integrate our passions, what innovations will we discover? What challenges would we overcome?
To celebrate National Nutrition Month, this article explores how local agriculture can help foster social connectedness.
To do this, I spoke with youth and adults representing urban and rural communities, non-profits, business and government and education agencies. Each brings a perspective that explores linkages to the built environment, education, youth engagement, workforce and inclusion.
I hope you find this exploration inspiring and enlightening. Perhaps you will identify a new partner or a new connection for your work.
My first two questions were for Lindsey Piant-Perez, Senior Architect and Southeast Sustainability Leader at DLR Group. Lindsey has been with DLR Group for 12 years and recently received a DLR Group Professional Development Grant to implement a garden-to-table project at Trinity Lutheran School in Orlando.
As both a parent of a young child and an accomplished architect, why do you think designing experiences that bring people together in nature is essential?
Lindsey: It always amazes me how much children naturally want to explore their environment. They like touching dirt, bugs, they look up to the sky often and truly notice the world around them. Architects focus on "what can be" about the built environment and how spaces can foster personalized learning. When we integrate indoor and outdoor environments and allow educators to bring learning concepts to life, there is a profound impact on performance.
How can the built environment create stronger families and communities?
Lindsey: A personal goal I have for my garden-to-table project is to explore how the school garden finds its way home. Will the garden influence kids in their eating habits? Will kids ask their parents to start a windowsill or backyard garden? I would love to see parents get involved with our garden; imagine if parents tended the garden with their child prior to heading home. Would that that experience reduce stress for the caregiver? Would it bring the parent and child closer?
My next two questions were for Erica Walther, Farm to School Specialist with the District of Columbia Office of the State Superintendent of Education.
Tell me more about Farm to School efforts in DC and what excites you about your work.
Erica: Farm field trips are a big push for us right now and we provide grant funding to schools and community organizations to take students on trips to farms in DC, Maryland and Virginia. The DC Farm to School Network is working to create opportunities to convene champions and promote dialogue. We also actively celebrate our achievements in getting local food into school meals. We are in our fourth year of collecting data from schools on the local foods they are purchasing and serving. This allows us to track trends in local food procurement and expands our network of farmers and distributors that grow and sell locally sourced items to schools.
What role do you think connecting children with local agriculture plays in educating them about global issues like health, safety and food insecurity?
A huge one and it's one of the reasons I love coming to work every day! Children are the future of our country; we cannot wait to help them build healthy habits and play a role in our community. I see local agriculture as a way to get children excited about eating healthy because they can connect directly with where their food comes from. They can pull a carrot from their school garden, harvest kale at a DC-based farm and meet a herd of cattle in Maryland. We see students react positively when they taste those items on-site, get to ask questions and learn about different agriculture practices.
To learn more about both farm to school as well as farm to afterschool, I turned to the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC). According to Clarissa Hayes, Child Nutrition Policy Analyst at FRAC, using local foods in summer and afterschool programming not only improves the quality of meals served but also strengthens connections to the farming community.
FRAC's Fresh from the Farm Guide explains that locally based agriculture marketing not only helps local economies by providing jobs and keeping farm sales within communities, but keeps working agricultural land open and gives local farmers an opportunity to play a role in nutrition enrichment.
To explore the linkage to youth leadership and service-learning, I had the opportunity to speak with two student officers for Minnesota Family, Career and Community Leaders of America (FCCLA) and their advisor.
FCCLA Advisor Tammy Borman has been involved with FCCLA for 15 years. Tammy states she "highly encourages teachers to look for opportunities to engage students in service-learning based on community needs children themselves have identified."
Mya Christensen, State President Elect has been involved for six years. She shared how being part of FCCLA has given her an opportunity to learn advocacy skills, make new friends and get out of her comfort zone by speaking in public.
When I asked Mya why she and other students should be involved in service-learning, she shared, "I think that it is important for students to be actively involved in service-learning projects because it helps them learn skills that are important to not only provide a positive impact on themselves, but also provide a positive impact on their communities."
Mya also shared two programs of FCCLA focused on health, wellness and food insecurity. Student Body, a program that helps members develop healthy living skills and Lead2Feed, FCCLA's national outreach program that teaches students how to help with hunger locally and globally.
I also spoke with the Minnesota FCCLA State Secretary, Johannah Nielsen for advice on involving students. Johannah shared, "Be persistent and patient because it can sometimes be a challenge to get students involved, but it all pays off greatly in the end... Every student has different interests, so planning diverse service projects that are fun and engaging is always a good idea."
LOCAL GOVERNMENT AND WORFORCE DEVELOPMENT
Creating opportunities to link children to local agriculture takes political champions, including local government. My next two questions went to Nancy Thellman, who works for Douglas County, Kansas as a County Commissioner.
Workforce development is a critical issue in our country. In your experience, how can connecting children with nature and local agriculture encourage them to pursue careers in farming and food production?
Nancy: Meeting farmers, especially young farmers, opens kids' eyes to a variety of careers that most have never thought of. There is a whole world of food-related work that doesn't necessarily require owning land or planting a single seed, including marketing, processing and distributing, culinary arts, food system planning and policy work. Food and agriculture offer a remarkable job sector that can be low-tech or high-tech, rural or urban, part-time or full-time, first career or second, third or fourth!
Do you think this linkage helps foster greater understanding of global issues like food insecurity, safety and health?
Nancy: Kids have a natural sense of what's fair and what's not fair. They know people shouldn't go hungry. Kids know people would rather be well than sick. Helping them understand how access to healthy food is part of the equation for solving hunger and improving health. Wouldn't it be great if our local farmers could be heroes in kids' eyes?
Providing a more urban perspective, I asked Sean Madden, Transition Coordinator for St. Louis YouthBuild: Workforce development is a critical issue in our country. In your experience, how can connecting children with nature and local agriculture encourage them to pursue trade school or higher education?
Sean: Connecting children with nature and local agriculture goes a long way towards reinforcing energy conservation, a need for a greener economy and nurturing a greater understanding of global issues. Teaching young people how to be urban farmers has been one of the many focuses of two local St. Louis organizations called Gateway Greening and Earth Dance Farms in Ferguson, Missouri. Introducing more students to aspects of a green economy allows them to see a different career pipeline after high school.
INCLUSION AND DIVERSITY
Ultimately, outdoor experiences and linkages to nature are only as impactful as they are inclusive. To round out the conversation with tips on inclusion, I spoke with Lori Watkins, Coordinator of Recreation for the Lakeshore Foundation in Birmingham, Alabama who regularly coordinates hunting camps for individuals with disabilities.
Acknowledging that making outdoor activities inclusive can be intimidating, Lori offered the following recommendations:
Thank you to everyone who contributed to this discussion. It is my hope that these diverse perspectives help you identify additional partnerships and resources through which you can leverage local agriculture to create a more connected world.
To read extended interviews and join the conversation, visit the Alliance for a Healthier Generation's Healthy Out-of-School Time blog.
For breakfast I had coffee, yogurt, berries and granola.
Designing welcoming environments for children and families has never been more important.
Let's look at some statistics and then talk action!
When reading these statistics, it's easy to feel discouraged. But – AFTERSCHOOL IS POWERFUL.
Imagine if we energize the 10.2 million children attending afterschool programs to feel a greater sense of connectedness and responsibility for each other and their communities.
Inspired by a recent visit I made to the National Center on Health, Physical Activity and Disability (NCHPAD), below are four activities to try this month to foster inclusive and welcoming environments. I've also intentionally blended these activities with the National AfterSchool Association (NAA) Standards for Healthy Eating and Physical Activity because a healthy afterschool site should always be an inclusive site.
1. Lead a Site Walk-through
Gather staff and students to lead an inclusion-focused walk-through of your afterschool site. If you operate on school grounds, invite school administration to join you. If you're a recreation agency, invite someone from your city council to join you. Before a child or family member even walks through your front door, what small changes can you make to ensure they feel welcome?
What opportunities will you uncover on your walk? Here are some ideas:
One new solution might be to create a fun and active trail made with Alliance for a Healthier Generation task cards leading up to your front door. Print, laminate and post activities using paint sticks. It'll add color and movement to your site while making a statement that something fresh and engaging happens inside!
Why not ask teens to design an "all about me" welcome bulletin board that features site staff and their favorite physical activities or hobbies. Integrate this activity into new volunteer or staff on-boarding to reinforce that your program prioritizes healthy role-modeling.
Keep the creativity flowing and help new students feel included by providing clear and vibrant signage. Decorate water fountains, hang encouraging stairwell signs and make it the norm to dance from point A to point B. In a challenging world, filling our afterschool programs with art, music and movement can provide a much needed oasis for children who may not otherwise have it.
A site walk-through gives children the opportunity to express their creativity and take ownership of the physical space of their afterschool site where they can find places to "absorb, act and show". Invite in-school staff to collaborate with afterschool staff and work together, especially if you share space. Consider putting a shared use agreement in place to make your efforts more sustainable.
Invite maintenance staff to participate so they understand your program goals. Something as simple as requesting light bulbs to be replaced can make it easier for children with disabilities, brighten up dark corners and encourage stairwell usage. Why not partner with your local creative community to paint a mural with positive and healthy messages? Not sure how to get plugged in? Check out a Creative Mornings event. A service-learning grant could help make it happen and a local art store might donate supplies and talent.
Combine intentionality and spring-cleaning and who knows what inspired materials you'll find in your supply closet!
2. Make Daily Cooperative Physical Activity the Norm
It doesn't matter if your program is focused on STEM or homework help, starting your program day with an inclusive brain booster can help children get active, clear their mind and foster connectedness. Make rainy days cooperative days even if they catch you by surprise. Create your own collection of favorite energizers so it's easier for children to help staff select activities that meet best practices.
Make this practice sustainable by adopting a wellness policy that ensures all program time begins with physical activity. Add cooperative physical activities to staff meetings and family events too for consistent messaging and role-modeling.
Avoid games with elimination elements that might target children who are new or different. Never run out of ideas by hosting your own do-it-yourself brain booster activity. Commit to never playing games like dodgeball – ever.
Daily cooperative activities give children an opportunity to learn, practice and develop a life-long love of movement. Cooperative games also make it easier for children to share in leadership.
3. Build Community through Healthy Snacks and Meals
If you serve afterschool snacks, meals or summer meals, promote dialogue and discussion through intentional conversations and activities. Structured mealtimes prevent small cliques from forming. Pay attention to needs of children with physical disabilities who many need accommodations. As you plan for summer meals, consider how new partners can spread the word, such as healthcare providers, the faith community and social service agencies who can help you reach a broader audience.
Let shared food experiences show youth how to identify commonalities with their peers and community members. Taste tests and potlucks at family events create space for families to get to know each other, share culture and traditions of cooking, meal times or even food preservation.
4. Build a Movement through Partnerships with Purpose
From maintenance staff willing to replace your light bulb to a police officer who likes to Zumba, creating healthy inclusive communities requires all of us. Learning how to work together can be the most challenging part. Begin staff meetings with intentional icebreakers to help staff connect on a personal and professional level.
Ensure your social media reflects families that you want to recruit into your program and depicts an inclusive environment.
Imagine the world we could create if we harnessed the power of the 10.2 million children who attend afterschool programs. That potential grows if we involve passionate staff, unconventional partners and extended families. We can accomplish a lot in afterschool, from health and wellness to STEM, but our impact will only be as strong as our ability to be inclusive and welcoming.
For breakfast I had a coffee and two clementines.
Community gardens serve as a place-based tool for connection, empowerment, and cultural identity. Today, more gardens are popping up in school yards, in vacant lots, nonprofits, and housing developments. Educators are using gardens as creative and holistic tools for teaching beyond the walls of the classroom.
In 2014, I wrote the piece, Using Gardens as Classrooms and shared how educators can use garden-based learning in formal and informal education settings with resources related to academic enrichment, family and community connections, storytelling, intergenerational relationships, and ecological sustainability. As I continue in my work with community gardens and youth programs in my own community, I came across this article by Margaret Lamar from the Children and Nature Network. She eloquently shares that, “natural green spaces are only part of a very complex set of solutions to our divisions, but perhaps they can provide some of the conditions for our coming together–to know one another, to see each other, to tell our stories, and to learn to live and thrive together.” She next poses ten questions for educators to consider as we use nature as a tool for change. Today, I will use two of her questions to shape the resources shared in this post:
Question 4: How can we use nature or outdoor programming to encourage cross-cultural exchange and community-based youth leadership?
Question 9: How can the smallest community gardens and the largest botanical gardens foster connections among cultural traditions, food, and multi-generational wisdom?
Because gardens produce vibrant and tasteful foods, one idea to celebrate the diversity of your community is to hold a garden feast. During this event, you can invite members of your community to bring a fresh dish from their culture. Provide conversation starters on tables that encourage cross-cultural exchange. In addition to the meal, you can plan music, art, or wellness activities that connect to different heritages. The Regional Park District in Oakland, CA set a good example for the intentionality of bringing community groups together by holding multicultural wellness walks and trail days.
My hope is that these resources can empower your education community to use gardens as a place where the exchange of culture comes to life and participants continue to see the world through all lenses. The ideas are endless! Everything from a pumpkin exchange to a community garden feast can build social connection and capital, increase skills and knowledge, improve our mental and physical welfare, and can be a positive tool for change.
For breakfast, I had hard boiled eggs, a banana, and iced coffee.