Today is "Farm to Institution" day for the USDA's new "Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food" initiative. Obama Foodorama has the schedule for the kick-off week, which includes White House assistant chef Sam Kass cooking at the USDA and the opening of a farmers market near the White House.
Bringing fresh, local foods into schools — through farm-to-school programs or school gardens — can have plenty of health and economic benefits: healthier and more engaged children, development of good eating habits, and new revenue sources for small farms.
Farms and gardens can also provide learning opportunities across a range of subjects including biology, history, and mathematics. But in these days of tightly-controlled curricula and a focus on testing, it's often not a simple matter to bring the garden or farm into the classroom.
That's where Life Lab comes in. I first learned about this organization at a meeting of the Culinary Historians of Northern California, where the topic of the night was urban gardening. During WWI and WWII, the speaker explained, school gardens were an important way for children to help the war effort by growing food, thus freeing up agricultural and logistical resources. And while school gardens are making comeback today, Life Lab, a non-profit organization based in Santa Cruz, California, has been helping teachers use gardens and farms for science education for 30 years through resource manuals and activity guides. Currently, their programs are used in over 1,000 schools across the U.S.
Life Lab has a garden classroom on the campus of the University of California, Santa Cruz, that hosts scores of field trips each year and serves as a real-life resource for educators who want to start their own school gardens. If you are passing through Santa Cruz, the garden is open for visitors every day from 8 AM to 6 PM. If you can't make a visit, the website has plenty of photos of the garden, as well as a "chicken cam" that has live images from the hen house.
If the next generation is going to 'know their farmer and know their food,' it's important that they not only experience delicious, healthy food direct from the farm, but that they also learn about how it is produced. Using gardens and farms as a source of classroom material could provide a basic foundation for a lifetime of inquiry into farms and food.