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This guest post by Lauren Maples of Bija Kids explores ways to integrate food and food justice with a preschool program, and the impacts of engaging young eaters with questions about our food system.

By Lauren Maples

For as long as I can remember, food has been a central part of my life. Growing up in 1980’s Chicago, my mom was the unusual one who cooked from scratch every night and sent me to school with foods my classmates viewed with curiosity and confusion. Both my parents loved food from around the world and, right from the beginning, I accompanied them on their eating adventures around the city. I learned to say opa eating saganaki and impressed waitresses with my request for steak carpaccio. By age six I had eaten my share of sushi, huevos rancheros, deep dish pizza, and had officially declared my favorite dish to be “mussels marinara,” which I ordered any chance I got.

At age eleven, I met Kim when she began dating my uncle. She was a vegetarian and gave me a book about animal welfare that rocked my world. Within a few weeks, I began making my own cruelty-free cleaning products and had also declared myself meat-free, a decision that lasted well into my twenties. Around this same time, I began cooking in earnest and discovered one of my greatest passions. In 2008, after a trip to India and a diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis, I began investigating the idea of “food as medicine.” This interest connected me with young farmers who blew up my food ideas for a second time. I learned about the differences between local and organic and how monocropping depletes our soil. I began to understand the value of livestock in small-scale sustainable farming and came to the belief that eating animals can be done with intentionality and care. I became a fierce advocate for pastured meat and integrated farming practices. For the first time, I learned about food deserts and recognized that access to food is a human right.

A little more than a year ago, I left Brooklyn for the Hudson Valley. I started building a homestead and now have the privilege of growing and raising my own food. My journey has made me very aware how much impact food has on a child’s life experience. Children must have nourishing, healthy food to support everything from health to academic success. It’s not surprising that I’ve made this connection, but it does baffle me that it’s not common sense. For the past twelve years, I’ve been an educator and school director, running a progressive program at Bija with a philosophy that promotes awareness, wellness and joy. Our curriculum focuses on  empowering kids to be positive and capable members of society through encounters with the arts, play and life skills. Food is central to our everyday learning.

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We talk about food for all the reasons you might imagine. We want kids to connect to their food source and to get excited about healthy choices. We use our gardening time as a tool to develop patience and awareness. We get kids outdoors and into nature as a creative way to teach STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) concepts. These are all valuable objectives, but I think most importantly, we teach children about food and farming because it’s a developmentally appropriate way to teach them about justice and equality. Through this hands- on learning, kids become aware that the things they eat are alive! Plants and animals have needs, and we are intricately connected to them. They come to understand that the way a society treats its food has a lot to do with how it treats its people. They develop a very strong sense of what’s right and what’s wrong from this type of learning. Not because we lead them in any particular direction, but simply because they’ve had these experiences.

A four-year-old student of mine has become deeply passionate about feeding others. She has come to understand intrinsically that all people need and deserve good food and she knows that not everyone has access like she does. As her mother shared with me, “She feels strongly about bringing food to the hungry. She doesn’t think it’s good enough to donate to a collection. She wants to go directly to people and give them food. She worries about the food not getting to them if we don’t find them and do it ourselves. Pretty amazing. She is developing not only empathy, but an urge to do something to help. I think this is definitely in part because of the environment at Bija.”

The first time I read this it brought tears to my eyes. This child, only four years in the world, has the awareness and empathy needed to uproot the system and demand food justice not only for herself, but for others. I recently attended the Just Food Conference at Columbia University and was encouraged by much of the same. The strongest advocates for reform were the youth in attendance. Collectively they were leaders and participants in urban farm projects and youth empowerment programs including those run by Added Value Farm and Harlem Grown. They shared that the work they did on farms was a catalyst for them to change the way they ate. It gave them the skills they needed to be confident in their views and reinforced that all people deserve access to healthy, fresh food. The message I heard was consistent: the food system as it stands must be changed. These kids didn’t come to these ideas from books or from lectures. They understand justice because they have participated in justice work. They have planted, tended and harvested the fruits of their efforts. They have fed themselves and their communities. On so many levels, they recognize the value of food. For many perhaps, growing food is just the beginning of the justice work they will do throughout life. Because, as the old saying goes, once you shine a light and see something, there’s no hiding it again.

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I think it’s time for us as parents, educators and communities to ask what we wish to teach the next generation. What type of people are we trying to raise? What issues and ideas should they know and understand? I cannot think of anything more pressing and powerful than empowering them to change the food system. A change in the way we grow, process and consume food will have an impact far greater than we can even imagine. By giving children the tools to do this work, we are not only helping them learn to feed themselves, but also signaling that they deserve and are entitled to good food–each and every one of them. This type of education has the power to create real change, lasting change. Because when a four-year-old is a passionate advocate for food justice, just imagine what she will do throughout her life.


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