A few years ago, Kaiser Permanente, a health foundation and hospital, re-branded itself with the “Thrive” ad campaign, which sought to promote healthy eating, active lifestyles, and a general confidence in their facilities. In one of their ads, a serious young girl stands poolside with her hands on her hips, with the ad reading, “I will not be part of Generation XXL.” Putting aside the thorny issues this poster might raise for some around negative body image (is she taking a break from swimming laps, trying to trim a few pounds?), it does reflect a younger generation much more aware of its habits of consumption—and the consequences of over-consumption. This development is partly a result both of a better-informed public thinking critically about food systems and of schools nationwide taking small but meaningful measures to address the growing epidemic of childhood obesity and early onset type 2 diabetes.
Billboards depict conflicting messages to today's youth. Illustration by Sam Ackerman.
One way children are getting turned on to healthy eating at school is through the elementary school garden. Especially for students in urban centers who may not spend much time watching plants grow, the garden creates a space where they can connect with the life cycle of edible plants. They discover their food, not processed and pre-packaged, but in its whole, original form, as it grows in a dynamic, living classroom.
This rich learning environment not only provides youth a chance to engage in relationships with other living things, but also allows for some of the best kind of interdisciplinary study. Whether a lesson on the nitrogen cycle is structured around planting cover crops to nourish the soil during the winter rains or whether pupils are instructed to search for evidence of certain angles in a geometry assignment, the garden is a multi-sensory environment that promotes authentic inquiry. It is a space where kids have real experiences and must construct their own meaning out of what they encounter there, rather than simply accept concepts that are handed to them. For example, a lesson focused on water conservation might be completely derailed by the dramatic appearance of a hummingbird, thereby setting in motion an entirely different set of questions and curiosities from those initially posed. In this way, classes are shaped not by script but by how students make sense of constantly-shifting stimuli, as we must do in real life.
The experiential garden, then, is an important balance to the somewhat necessary, yet abstract, four-walled environment of books and teachers. The traditional classroom is more often than not a place of sensory deprivation. Regardless of the quality of education or the variety of the content, the physical act of sitting at a desk and absorbing information passively is confining and one-dimensional.
In our narrow focus toward schooling the mind, we’ve disallowed the body as both a conduit and an expressive tool for learning. It is well-recognized that many of us learn kinesthetically, through hands-on, active participation. The garden’s space can counter the disembodying nature of traditional classroom learning, simply by allowing for learning through movement. In turn, a growing awareness of the body develops one’s sense of nourishment, of being able to perceive with acuity how food tastes and makes us feel. The school garden offers young ones the chance to cultivate their mind, body, and palate; they cook what they harvest, and in doing so, commit to muscle memory the resourcefulness with which they can create simple meals that taste good.
For kids making the transition into the middle and upper grades, the lessons of the school garden demand the reflection and higher-order thinking that we expect of adults in professional life. Students don’t just learn about economic pressures on agricultural production, but they also make inferences about the true costs of food; they don’t just learn to read, but they also become media literate, able to spot deceptions in advertising.
Israeli youth educator Daniel Rose speaks of the Passover Seder as the ultimate experiential lesson, whereby the young, whether smart or simple, are guided carefully through the Exodus story. Everything eaten and drunk has a historical significance. In short, we embody the blood and tears of our history. To this end, Rose refers to a common passage in the Hagaddah which states, “In each and every generation, a person must present himself as if he, himself, has now left the slavery in Egypt” (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Chametz and Matzah, 7:6). During the Seder, we fulfill our educational obligation by using food to learn about our past and link it to our present. This paradigm re-contextualizes what we eat as who we are, both as a culture and as individuals. And for those who do not yet know how to ask, we model a legacy of conscientious eating. In turn, our next generation—not XXL but extra-selfaware—is developing skills that will lead to healthy lifestyles, in a way that is fundamentally joyful…and tasty.