The Power of Growing Your Own Food

Late February’s warm sun and cool breezes most days make for perfect gardening weather.  I’ve been gardening with kids since I first started teaching more than 20 years ago, and there are few things in my experience that can make more of a difference in the life of a child.  Growing your own food is good for the body and the soul.

 Warm February days are perfect for gardening with kids in Florida.

Warm February days are perfect for gardening with kids in Florida.

Here’s why growing your own food can be so powerful:

Gardens Fight Against Functional Food Deserts

A food desert is a geographic location where access to fresh food is limited.  Residents may not have transportation, and a grocery store isn’t easily accessible.  Food deserts are associated with higher levels of Type-2 diabetes and other significant health problems. The USDA maps food deserts, and they’re a challenging reality in our community, but access to a grocery store is only part of the problem.

Minivan-driving suburban households can have some of the same health challenges as our inner-city neighbors. Even with plenty of access to fresh fruits and vegetables, parents have to buy them and kids have to actually eat them.   A functional food desert can exist anywhere when we don’t eat the fresh vegetables and fruit that are available. A recent study in Chicago found that 73 percent of produce served in school cafeterias was left untouched.

Gardens grow curiosity

Have you ever seen Brussel sprouts growing?  How about broccoli or okra? The plants themselves are beautiful, and kids are much more likely to try a new vegetable that they’ve seen growing at school, at home, or on a farm visit. Alternatively, one of the easiest ways to encourage kids to try new things is to spend a Saturday between 8 am and 2 pm at the Lakeland Downtown Curb Market and let them help choose the produce.

Once you’ve decided to make a start getting your family to try more fruits and vegetables, how can you have the best chance of success?  Here are some ways to make it happen:

Florida Fresh App can help

One of my favorite resources is a free app called “Florida Fresh” from University of Florida/IFAS, which is available in the App Store or on Google Play.

It’s pretty simple--enter your zip code and it can help you choose produce that’s in season at the grocery store or decide what vegetables to plant at home. Whenever possible, choose produce that’s both in season and grown close to home--it will be more flavorful and less expensive.  If you’re ready to try a garden at home, it can be a big help, too. I am currently using the Florida Fresh app to help students plan our spring garden at Lakeland Christian School.

Give them vegetables when they’re really hungry

Access to fresh fruits and vegetables does nothing beneficial if kids won’t eat them.  Here’s a tip: give kids fresh fruits and vegetables when they’re feeling ravenous. Try a pint of cherry tomatoes or a bag of baby carrots for snacking in the car when they’re really hungry after school.  

My roasted vegetable magic trick

If your kids won’t eat vegetables, maybe it’s because they’re not delicious enough. Great chefs know that roasting concentrates the natural sugars in vegetables and makes them almost irresistible.  

Try this easy trick:  

  • Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

  • Wash and cut into bite-sized pieces just about any available fresh vegetable. Broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, green beans, beets, eggplant, brussel sprouts, onions, asparagus, zucchini, summer squash, mushrooms, bell peppers, and potatoes all work well.

  • Grab a jelly roll pan (like a cookie sheet with sides) or a roasting pan and cover with foil or parchment paper. This makes clean-up really easy.

  • Toss the vegetables with some olive oil and plenty of sea salt and fresh garlic (or garlic salt) and pepper right in the pan.   No need to have to wash a bowl.

  • Put the seasoned vegetables in the oven for 10-20 minutes--keep an eye on them and pull them out when they start to get a little brown and crispy on the edges.

If you prefer a more specific recipe, you might try this one or this stove-top alternative.

Here’s the key to this magic trick: Roast the vegetables before dinner when kids are really hungry and put them on the counter to cool.  The smell is fabulous and your famished kids will start wandering into the kitchen to check it out.  Here’s where it gets interesting.  

Don’t be too eager.  Whatever you do, don’t push the vegetables.  Don’t mention the vegetables.  Don’t look at the vegetables.  Let your kids’ natural curiosity get the best of them. Pretend that you don’t notice them stealing bites of broccoli or snitching a roasted green bean straight from the pan.    

Only after they’ve discovered how delicious they are should you invite them to enjoy the appetizer.  Let them eat the vegetables first--before you put dinner on the table. Repeat this strategy over time until they’ve discovered that they actually love a wide variety of fresh vegetables.

Here are a few take-aways:

  1. Nutrition is an enormous public health issue. Prevent “functional food deserts” by buying fewer processed foods and eating more fresh food.Buy and serve more Florida produce.  
  2. Try a great recipe. If it’s actually delicious, your kids will eat it.
  3. Use resources like the Florida Fresh app to choose what’s in season.
  4. Helping kids learn to choose fresh food is a real challenge, and it’s one our entire community can come together to address.  More exciting opportunities are coming soon to be a part of a transformation.  Stay tuned!

Posted In Viking Views Blog From RISE, From Health, From Food

Published on by Jennifer Canady.