Ty, age 4, stared with wonder at the long orange vegetable with the big green leaves coming out of the top. “What is this?” he asked his Dad. His Dad replied, “That’s a carrot.” “That’s a carrot?” asked Ty. “I thought carrots were those little orange things that come in plastic bags.”

Recent marketing data has shown that there has been an upsurge in families planting vegetable gardens. Although we tend to see the popularity of backyard gardens rise during harder economic times, they are valuable for more than financial reasons. Food education is an opportunity for children to learn about where food comes from and to establish a healthy relationship with food.

A by-product of less and less time outdoors and a trend for many U.S. families is that fewer children get first-hand experience with food sources. In days past, more of us had backyard gardens or visited a farm of family members or friends. We may have gotten to pick apples from the tree or ground, collect eggs from the hen house, or harvest beans off the plants. Today, many children only experience food coming from a grocery store.

Reconnecting our children to food’s origins can build their conceptual understanding of food sources, while also providing an opportunity to form healthy eating habits and learn about the environmental implications of growing organically or transporting food long distances.

Here are a few suggestions to introduce the idea of food source to your children.

Plant your own vegetable garden. A vegetable or edible garden can be as small or large as you would like or your space accommodates. Even having one cherry tomato plant in a container on your porch or patio gives your child a chance to experience the growing and harvesting cycle of local foods. Some regions sponsor community or urban gardens where several families who don’t have gardening space can farm a small plot together.

Join a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) group. Many farms now offer locally grown, often organic, foods by subscription. A family purchases a “share” of a local farm and receives a bag, box or credit towards fresh fruits and veggies that they pick up each week. Purchasing shares help guarantee the farmer’s subsistence and the food is seasonal and fresh off the farm.

The pick-up place for the vegetables is often the farm itself. This can become a fun and educational experience for your children. The foods each week may include some you or your children have never seen before like turnips, kale, or red beets. But learning more about these foods and where their daily servings of vegetables come from can become a family educational adventure. Learning about all sorts of vegetables and food sources can also be easier to get kids to try new foods. Some CSAs also offer opportunities to work on the farm.

Consider eating one “seasonal” meal each week. This would mean only using fruits and vegetables that are in season, not grown in different climates and shipped from far away. If you shop at farmers markets or join a CSA, this is easy, because they only carry seasonal items. Older children might enjoy making a chart of when their favorite fruits and vegetables are available locally and can look forward to their purchase.

Visit the local farmers market with your children. While your children probably won’t get to see where the actual food is grown, they will typically see unpackaged foods and some foods and vegetables they are unfamiliar with. They may even get to talk to the farmer. Or you can make a visit to the farm or farmers market more interesting for children using a few of the following ideas.

Encourage conversations between your child and the farmer about the available fruits and vegetables. Older children can keep a market journal. Questions to ask:
– Where is your farm located?
– What kind of tomato/lettuce/etc. is this?
– When was this vegetable/fruit picked?
– What produce will you have next week?

Engage young children in using their senses:
– What does the vegetable/fruit feel like? Is it bumpy or smooth? Is it hard or soft?
– What does the vegetable/fruit look like? What color is it? What shape?
– What does the vegetable/fruit sound like when you tap it? Is it hollow? Does it sound like a drum?
– What does the vegetable/fruit smell like? Does it have a strong smell or no smell?
– What does the vegetable/fruit taste like? Do you think it will be juicy or dry? Sweet or salty? Let’s go home and give it a taste.

Create a Market Scavenger Hunt:
– Create a grocery list before going to the farmers market.
– Have your child help locate the items on the list.
– Use check marks or stickers to show the item as complete.
– Consider a “freebie” square for an item that the child can pick.

Allow children to experience many different markets:
– Talk about the differences and similarities between each.
– Older children can add this to their farmers market journal.
– Find markets with children’s entertainment or educational events.
– Meet friends for a play date or picnic at the market.

Reinforce the food education at home:
– Have children compare produce from the grocery store with produce from the farmers market. Do they look the same? Feel the same? Smell the same? Taste the same?
– Create a “food map.” Using a world or U.S. map, highlight regions by category. Have children mark on the map where the produce they eat in a week comes from. (NOTE: By law, all stores need to label the Country of Origin for all produce).




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