Thursday, July 19, 2012

Grows on trees

It's now accepted wisdom that modern children's ignorance as to where their food comes from is something in desperate need of a remedy. If your child thinks vegetables come from the supermarket or, god forbid, the freezer, this must be addressed. Leave it to the NYT parenting blog to provide the most extreme example: a boy who, because of his (lactose-tolerant!) Northwest European ancestry, must milk cows as some kind of feats-of-strength bar mitzvah, so that his mother can write about it, which is, of course, what coming-of-age rituals are all about. (There's a video as well.)

Anyway, I'm still not sure why knowing where food comes from is supposed to be necessary. A certain amount of this knowledge might come from a biology class (what a plant is, how plants make babies, and the inevitable sprout-a-seed project), but why do we need to know more about farm life than any other? Why do we need to know how crops are harvested? It's not that farm knowledge is damaging, so much as that there are so many other things kids ought to know more about, things that are actually applicable to their lives, that might be more useful. Farm Studies is fine, but not necessarily pressing.

Counter and counter-counter arguments:

-Everyone eats. But everyone also... you see where this is going. We don't expect kids to have intimate knowledge of the sewage system. Everybody breathes, but we don't insist that kids meet with air-pollution researchers. Everybody wears clothing, but I have yet to hear of school trips to the sweatshops of lower Manhattan.

-It's a good life lesson for children - especially ones from wealthy backgrounds - to realize that hard physical labor makes their lives possible. But is the work that goes into growing organic carrots so much more strenuous than whatever factory-workers who make processed foods go through? Do we need kids to know how their houses were constructed? Roads?

-Kids who've been educated about what it looks like when a tomato's on the vine probably have more sympathy for tomato-pickers. But again, there are plenty of crummy jobs out there, and we don't try to teach empathy by having kids do a day in the life as a home-care aide, a day in the life as a Petsmart janitor. More likely, kids will come to have a romantic, and altogether unrealistic, idea of where the actual food they consume comes from, and will then think it's horrible that any food isn't produced in such charming conditions... and will, in turn, not know how to tell the difference between good and bad large- or mid-scale food-production systems. There's a degree of artisanalness necessary to not be on the Twinkie diet, but it's a great deal less extreme than tiny gardens, backyard goat cheese experiments, and the like. No processing plant, however great it treats its workers, however splendid the food it produces, will have the charm of scampering bunnies and so forth.

-If kids know where their food comes from, better yet, if they've grown it themselves, they'll eat fruits and vegetables. If they eat (super-duper-local) fruits and vegetables, they won't be obese. Childhood obesity is a problem. Gardens are the answer. To this, I'd say that if kids enjoy gardening, it's certainly a whole lot better than a lot of other recreational activities thrown at them (unlike football, little risk of concussion). If I had the space (technically the rights to what is in fact a great deal of outdoor space), I'd go vegetable-garden-crazy. But I'm not sure about this as a nutrition fix for The Youth. Even if it works in the immediate moment, and the home-grown peas are consumed, will this make canned or even frozen peas - or, for that matter, home-grown peas grown by someone else - more appetizing? Where exactly are parents going to be procuring all these garden-fresh vegetables, enough so to account for the greenery on the nightly dinner plate? Meanwhile, to repeat myself for a change, it's incredibly unlikely that the presence of local, seasonal, home-grown vegetables is making the difference for anyone's weight. There's correlation, yes, but causation seems unlikely, when not terribly many garden-growing yuppies are in fact subsistence farmers, or are otherwise managing, via farmers market or CSA, to only eat local/seasonal/organic.

-So let's accept that it's inconsequential if your kid eats tomatoes all his life without ever learning what a tomato plant looks like. But it can't hurt for a kid to learn that ketchup comes from tomatoes, or more specifically, roughly what's done to tomatoes to get them to that state, right? But this is really just a nutrition issue, or more simply, a teaching-your-kid-to-cook issue. It's inefficient for everyone to be a farmer, but everyone does need to know how to cook, at least until the nutrition and quality of readily-accessible prepared foods increases tremendously. This is a basic-survival, be-a-functional-person thing. But it in no way requires agricultural knowledge. If your kid will only eat vegetables he himself has bought and prepared, that's at least sustainable. Only ones he grew himself, less so.


kei said...

From gardening on my own, I've learned what's in season when--leafy greens and radishes like the cool weather, like spring and fall, and peppers like the heat, that sort of thing. That's useful in knowing when things are more fresh at the grocery, I suppose, which would add to your point about augmenting practical food knowledge. But even if I know more about beets, how colorful and pretty they are, and taking pleasure in knowing that I grew them, they still taste like dirt!

The thing that might be educational in a more useful way is learning how peanuts or popcorn grow. There are signs on those plants that say, "Do you know how peanuts are grown?" And I'm like, "No, I don't!" I have other priorities with my limited garden space, mostly growing Asian things, but those snacks might be kind of fun to learn about.

Britta said...

Did this kid not take trips to milk cows in pre-school?

This article was annoying, not because of what the mom wanted her kid to do (although milking a cow successfully doesn't seem all that necessary to conceptually understand that milk comes from a cow's udders), but because it seemed like random, basic stuff wrapped up as some sort of vision quest. 14 is definitely old enough to start with food preparation. Why the boy has to make mayonnaise over something more useful isn't clear, but learning cooking basics seems like a good preparation for life.

When we were very young (I think I was about 5-6), once a week my parents decided that each kid would be responsible for a dinner one night each week. It had to include something from the 4 food groups, and we had to actively participate in making it, but as long as it met those requirements we had full control over the menu. I remember several weeks of eating yogurt, nuts, and raisins for dinner when it was my 4 year old sister's turn. Anyways, the "you have to make dinner for your family" reminded me of that.

Phoebe said...


I totally agree that gardening is fun, even though my experience of it is limited to my parents' terrace and my own attempts at windowsill "farming," which have mostly involved seeing what happens if you put a garlic clove in soil. (A garlic chive, apparently. And mold.) I do know how corn is grown, which gives me a sense of popcorn, but peanuts, who knows. I don't think kids should be prevented from gardening or agriculture class sessions, only that if they don't graduate knowing this, it's no harm done. Meanwhile there's this influential contingent (the First Lady!) saying that this is about as harmful as it gets.


Making dinner, yes. Mayonnaise was chosen because it's something the kid likes to eat, but it seems... not very complicated. Isn't it basically a vinaigrette, but with egg? I've made Caesar dressing in the food processor, and this is not something any child old enough to handle that blade would need lessons in. Baking bread, like vegetable-gardening, is an innocuous, possibly money-saving hobby, but not really a basic cooking skill. Milking a cow, I have no idea - I guess it provided a good visual for making one's adolescent son do something rustic on the Motherlode blog.

Anyway, I cook all the time, and am I suppose somewhat but not entirely self-taught (as in, the things I make most I was never taught, but many of the basics, yes), and I don't find myself held back by not knowing the full history of each ingredient, nor helped by knowing, more or less, what a tomato plant looks like. It's possible to make an arrabiata from scratch out of a can of whole peeled tomatoes either way.

PG said...

I thought NYers had started taking kids to farms because of standardized testing. Too Tiger Mom, not Styles Section enough of me?

Phoebe said...

Good pickup! But that's, as I suspect you know, a pretty particular case, and is evidently matched by cases of rural and suburban kids visiting cities to learn about those.

Phoebe said...

Oh, and for Britta, others as well,

The way I'd look at this is, there's on the one hand teaching self-sufficiency as in how to survive in the society in which one lives. Stuff like cooking, laundry, what bill-paying entails. There is, on the other, teaching the skills which one might have needed to survive in the past, or in some dreamed-up state of nature. The latter has its place, maybe, in terms of teaching kids about the pre-screen age, but isn't essential.

PG said...

evidently matched by cases of rural and suburban kids visiting cities to learn about those.

I didn't know that. I don't remember ever going to a city while I was in school for the purpose of learning about the city itself (e.g. by riding public transport). I remember going to Houston to see the space center a couple times, and Dallas to see where JFK got shot, but we were very carefully shepherded around in a school bus. Even on a trip to DC (which only the more well-off kids attended anyway), we never used the subway or otherwise interacted with the city as something besides a set of monuments and museums.

Some people originally from rural areas can be pretty defensive toward the idea that they ought to know about cities. E.g. this professor, who wrote an entire article called "Farming Made Her Stupid" that claimed cityfolk consider knowledge of farming to be worse than ignorance. Abstract: "This essay is an examination of stupid knowing, an attempt to catalog a particular species of
knowing, and to understand when, how, and why the label 'stupid' gets applied to marginalized groups of knowers."

Phoebe said...


Sorry - it was that rural kids are learning about cities and suburbs. From the article you linked to:

"In Jemez Pueblo, N.M., about 40 miles north of Albuquerque, students at Walatowa Charter High School have the opposite problem on state tests: ignorance of urban and suburban terminology. As a result, educators there have started taking the school’s 59 students on trips to major cities, like Calcutta and Washington."

Not something I'd heard of before, but then again, other than that article, I'd never heard of city kids going on special trips to learn about farm life in order to score better on standardized tests.

And... there are academic articles on everything. Not sure this one is representative of any larger grievance among the rural. Anyway, are farmers especially marginalized, and stereotyped as stupid? Maybe, in that the history of urbanization involves (or is imagined to involve, to be hyper-sensitive about this) those with the smarts to do so leaving, and those without staying put.

Andrew Stevens said...

On the contrary, the city was where you went if you couldn't make it as a farmer. Same thing with immigration generally. People leave a place because they're failing there. "Wretched refuse of your teeming shore" and all that.

Phoebe said...


Yeah, I think if you have to leave a country because you're being persecuted, or because the economic opportunities are better elsewhere and you happen to have been clever/lucky enough to get out, this isn't "failing" at farming. A kid who realizes he can make a lot of money/make the most of his talents using skills he knows he has if he moves from a small town to a city has not failed at farming. Maybe this applies to the Irish potato famine.

Andrew Stevens said...

"Failing" was not meant to be judgmental, just descriptive. As you say, this can occur due to persecution, religious differences from the majority culture, or for other reasons. E.g. in a lot of cases, the oldest son got the farm and the younger children got money to try to make their own way, either buying land elsewhere or moving into the city and trying to make it there. People who are successful where they are, though, rarely leave, which is, after all, quite a risk to take in the hopes of better opportunities. People who ran successful farms did not jump at the opportunity to move to cities and become factory workers; the more marginal farmers and the unlanded did.

Phoebe said...

Anyone who thinks elsewhere would be better thinks where they are isn't so great. If you're defining a "successful farmer" not merely as someone able to make a living as a farmer, but also someone who enjoys rural life and feels he has all he needs, then you're right, they'd probably have stayed put. It just seems an odd way of looking at it, to say that every small-town kid who wanted to get to the big city had failed, even if we've reinvented "failed" to mean something non-judgmental. Lots of times, the individual perfectly well could have stayed put, but merely failed to be satisfied with the very same options as - or even better options than - others in the town had at their disposal.

Andrew Stevens said...

I was talking about the history of urbanization. Most people who went to cities from rural areas did not do so to become doctors, lawyers, and Indian chiefs. They went to do really unpleasant jobs in factories in cities where the pollution could literally kill you with so-so access to fresh food and clean water. Cities are a lot more pleasant now and there are a lot more and varied job opportunities, but that's a comparatively recent phenomenon. (I'm not saying life on the farm back then was easy, by the way.)

Looking back up at my first comment, I phrased it poorly and it does read to me now as judgmental, so I agree with you on that. Mea culpa. Even then, I didn't say every person. I'm sure there were people who sold a successful farm to go to the city and try their hand at entrepreneurship just as I'm sure there were people who went out to the frontier in Ohio, hoping to get even more and better land than they had at home.