Kathleen Yetman is the Arizona FoodCorps Fellow. She lives and works on the Fort Apache Indian Reservation in eastern Arizona. She spent last year as a FoodCorps service member teaching gardening and nutrition to third, fourth, and fifth graders at Cibecue Elementary School in Cibecue, Arizona. She also helped 10 families in Whiteriver and Cibecue start their own gardens at their homes (half of them had children in her classes). This year, as a Fellow, she will focus on rejuvenating old fruit trees on the Reservation and teaching people how to care for them, while engaging local high school students to help.
The wisdom of sugar snap peas: sweetness that bridges generations
We’re in the garden pulling weeds when Zoe discovers the sugar snap peas hidden among the chiles and raspberry bushes. She and her classmates planted the seeds two months ago and with all of our other activities, they had forgotten about them. When she asks me if she can have one and I give her permission, all weeding efforts are abandoned and every child in the class is huddled around the garden bed in search of their own.
Most of them don’t quite understand what they are. They’ve had canned peas on their lunch trays at school, or perhaps their parents have incorporated them, frozen, into stews and the like, but what they have not had the joy of tasting is the whole pea-and-pod in all its glory–and glorious this moment is. Every child that tastes one is begging me for another and I send them off, making sure to show them first how to pick them the right way, so they are gentle with the small plants and handle them with gratitude and respect. This is the way I was taught to harvest sugar snap peas when I was a child, and in watching my third graders rejoice in the sweet crunchiness, my heart feels full of the memory of my own first taste.
My grandmother was a master gardener. She and my grandfather lived within three miles of my parents’ house so my siblings and I spent much of our childhood there. She spent all day, every day in her garden, so naturally, a trip to my grandparents’ house meant a trip to her garden. My grandmother understood the importance of giving us jobs in the garden as well as allowing us time to explore every corner of the yard on our own. When we went to pull weeds, we were allowed to sift through a box of old mismatched women’s dress gloves and choose a pair to protect our hands. She taught us to treat worms with the greatest amount of respect and appreciation and gave us scissors to cut the heads off of any grasshoppers we found. She provided guidance with planting seeds, harvesting fruits, and turning the soil. She encouraged us to stick our hands in her compost pile. And when our work was done we wandered in wonder and played in this magical place. I loved sitting among the flowers that towered over me, watching butterflies and bees visit each one. I loved climbing the Winesap apple tree all the way to the top where I fit perfectly in its branches. And in the summer, I loved picking berries and tomatoes and sugar snap peas and eating them to my heart’s content.
Spending time in a garden for children is, in my opinion, essential to healthy development. I would argue that giving children time in nature is more important now than ever before, but it has always been so. A garden setting has the capacity to teach us all many of the core values needed to grow into healthy beings. Playing with the soil gives children a connection to the earth–a grounding that is much-needed by many due to their virtual existences. Planting seeds and watching them grow into plants teaches patience and gives them a relationship to their food. Building beds, planting seeds, and tending plants in every way teaches children helpfulness, responsibility, and a healthy work ethic. Gardening is a system in which we truly enjoy the fruits of our labor–by nourishing the earth, the earth nourishes us.
And then there are the things that can’t be taught that are imperative to development: exploration, wonder, and imagination. Video games and television may entertain children, but nature challenges and inspires them. And for kids in urban areas, a school garden may be the only nature they have access to. I have seen children transformed by the garden. One of my very energetic students who has a hard time focusing on a single task became our best digger when we harvested wild carrots this spring. He spent fifteen minutes carefully scraping away dirt with his hands and shovel to retrieve a single carrot and the look of pride on his face was priceless. The garden gives him a place to shine.
I think it is really meaningful for my students when they learn something new and I can say to them, “When I was your age, my grandmother taught me this.” Like last month when we were learning about Apache wild spinach (lamb’s quarters) and I shared with my students that my grandmother used to make lasagna using this wild green. I see in their eyes and smiles an understanding dawn that even though I am different from them, I was a child once experiencing the world in the same way they are today. And perhaps they are making a connection in their minds to their own grandmother and will ask her about her cornfield and what she ate when she was a child.
I see my grandmother in the iris that bloom in May and in the abundance of little strawberries in June. In the garden I am still learning from her seventeen years after her death. I am so grateful to spend time with children in their school garden. I love watching them explore, discover, and consume the plants they care for. On of my favorite thing about being a FoodCorps service member is that in the garden our education is never done. Every day while I am teaching my students about plants and soil, the garden and the students are teaching me. In our school garden, the plants aren’t the only ones growing.
Photos provided courtesy of Johns Hopkins Center for American Indian Health.
FoodCorps is a nationwide team of passionate leaders who work to connect kids to real food. As a “Seed Funder,” Annie’s is enabling FoodCorps Fellows to support, guide, and mentor service members who then go out to teach kids about what healthy food is and where it comes from, build and tend school gardens, and bring high-quality local food into public school cafeterias.