Kids Learn About Delicious Food and its Complexities

By: Co+op

By Vicky Senni

As I gear up to share a story or two of this 2013-14 school year's work in education and outreach, I find myself in fifth grade—at Putney Central School in Vermont, to be exact. The teacher, Karen Saunders, and her intern, Clio, have invited me to take part in a classroom project that focuses on the school district's diversity theme: labor. Students will visit several local farms, starting this fall, with the ultimate tasks of seeking out and retelling the stories of farmers and farm workers. Their creations—video interviews, written stories, poems, and art—will become resources for folks interested in teaching and learning about food and farms.

Though it’s a new theme for the district, labor is one that we have been exploring quite a bit with students over the 2013-14 school year. The truth about labor in the food business can be disappointing, and often quite heartbreaking—particularly for our young minds. The outcome of these lessons, then, is not to leave students feeling disheartened—a mistake that I could have made last spring, when teaching these very same students (fourth graders at the time) about chocolate.f

We tried out some cocoa butter on our skin, tasted nibs, beans, and the final product (chocolate bars sent to us from Equal Exchange). We learned about how ancient people used cacao, and each student made their own version of “ancient hot chocolate” using mortars & pestles, raw beans, and various spices. We passed around a cacao pod while we looked at images of the cacao tree, how chocolate is processed from seeds, where in the world it grows, and who grows it. That part—who grows it—was the tough part. Much of the cacao that supplies big chocolate companies comes from the Ivory Coast. Cacao farmers on average earn less than $2/day, and are using child labor to keep prices down. Kids learning about other kids who are forced to work all day with no pay is, well, scary. At the same time, students were very compelled by a young girl who petitioned Girls Scouts to use fair trade chocolate in their cookies with an appeal to “please make the world a better place for ALL children.” It begs the question, what can we do? And if you have a kid or know one, you may know that to merely hope is not sufficient. Kids are all about action.

With only two classroom visits, the task of teaching the complexities of the system with these very engaged fourth graders was difficult. Fortunately, with Karen Saunders on board, we’ll have a chance to revisit chocolate in the 2014-15 school year, making connections to our local farmer interview project, engaging in the beauty of eating locally, and tying in the key concepts of solidarity and social justice. These are much like the ideas that boosted the modern cooperative movement in the mid-19th century. The film Food for Change, which we will see at the Annual Meeting, tells us a story of people working together to challenge the established order and to “control the mechanism by which we feed ourselves.” Co-ops were a new way of organizing society with the goal of no exploitation, improving working & living conditions, and selling honest food at honest prices.

In April and May of 2014, we were able to address these same issues through a series of classes for the International Business high school students from the Windham Regional Career Center. The teacher, Maribeth Cornell, was ready to “let go” while her students practiced critical thinking skills. We started off with a store tour, and a discussion of what makes the cooperative business model different than others. Then, with the help of Becca Polk, a grad student through Marlboro's Teaching for Social Justice program, we studied the global system through the lens of three very common foods.

“I want to thank you so much for opening my eyes to these problems that occur in our food industry,” wrote Marissa Semenovich. “I would've never even thought about where my food came from or what happened in the process of its making if you hadn't taught us about bananas, chocolate, and tomatoes... It is up to my generation to expand the knowledge and help create a better world, and I thank you for helping spark an interest for me so I can do just that.”

As a big cooperativein a little town in a little state, we have the power to redefine our relationships with one another, and with our food source. Expanding this knowledge of where our food comes from, as Marissa suggests, is one step toward creating a better world. We've partnered up with Food Connects to train volunteers interested in teaching Harvest of the Month lessons in the local classrooms, and have had many shareholders who are excited to be a part of their co-op community in this particular way. We continue to support our local teachers, who are increasingly bringing food into their curricula through school gardens, classroom cooking, and engaging with community farms.

A fifth grader does science experiments using purple cabbage, part of Brattleboro Food Co-op's field trip programs in partnership with the Brattleboro Museum and Art Center and local schools.

Our field trip programs have taken off, as our partnership with the Brattleboro Museum and Art Center brought fifteen classrooms into town to take part in Junction: Art & Food. Classes were from Green Street School, Oak Grove, Chester-Andover, Newbrook, and Twin Valley. Students began the day with a morning of Visual Thinking Strategies and art projects at the museum with Susan Calabria, the education curator. The afternoon at the co-op was science-based, giving students a chance to create their own chemistry lab. To do this, we used purple cabbage juice as a pH indicator and observed as we created a rainbow of colors that indicate whether we're working with an acid or a base. Lots of these concepts were new to students, but the experience was unforgettable.

We included a produce scavenger hunt in the mix, made homemade food dyes, and did some blind taste testing of various fruits and vegetables. Each time, I'd ask them who tried something new, something they'd never tried before... and inevitably, almost every hand went up. We discussed how clean air, good soil, water, sunshine, and people are all a part of our nourishment. We ended the day making ice cream with the option of adding strawberries or blueberries.

Belle, from Chester-Andover, wrote us to say, “I hope you enjoyed that day as much as I did. It was my favorite field trip of the year.” Her classmate, Nic, said, “I learned so much. Making the food dye was fun. It was weird making blue. It was purple cabbage and baking soda. Why wasn't it blueberry?” Purple cabbage turns a really beautiful blue with the presence of baking soda, a base. Blueberries, on the other hand, are actually quite purple when blended!

I hope that Nic and all of our kids and grown-ups will keep asking questions. Whether it's science or social studies, this stuff is complex at times, but important always. And it's up to us, together, to continue teaching, learning, and working toward a better world for all people.