There is, indeed, a first time for everything.
“I will never forget the first time I planted something and it didn’t die, and we could eat it,” says Food Literacy Project director Carol Gundersen. “I will never forget it. And it’s a real pleasure to be able to share that experience with people in this community.”
The Food Literacy Project is celebrating its 10th anniversary on Saturday, June 25, with a field day at Oxmoor Farms. Oxmoor Farms is a working commercial vegetable farm that also has served as the site for most of the Food Literacy Project’s programs throughout the last decade.
Gundersen tells Insider the nonprofit initially grew out of the work that farmer (and owner of Harvest) Ivor Chodkowski already was doing at Oxmoor.
“He was receiving informal requests from people he knew, acquaintances who would say, ‘Gosh, I teach school and I would really love if my students could better understand where their food comes from,’” she says. “He would good naturedly say, ‘Yes, bring them out, let’s do something.’”
Gundersen remembers, because at the time, she already was working at Oxmoor Farms doing some farming. It’s a habit she had picked up in college at Vassar.
“I had the opportunity to get some experience growing vegetables on a small farm, in the town where I lived, and it was a very rich experience,” she recalls.
So in 2005, when Chodkowski was interested in trying to offer visits to the farm in a less haphazard way, Gunderson was there to help.
The field-to-fork experience
“We’ve given over 30,000 youth and families what we call our ‘field-to-fork experience’ — all of our various activities live under the umbrella of field-to-fork,” says Gundersen, adding, “It plays out in a few different ways.”
But the core stays the same. Let kids gets get their hands on plants, seeds and soil, and let that connection work its magic.
“Kids and families are out in the field, they are planting, harvesting, and we’ve always done a lot of tasting with kids out in the field, exploring what’s growing out on the farm,” says Gundersen. For the last several years, that tasting has included cooking. “In 2011, we built an outdoor teaching kitchen on the farm.”
Gunderson’s excitement about that kitchen is clear. “The kitchen let us take the next step. So now we’re not just out in the field eating leaves, we’re preparing a dish that kids and families can easily prepare at home. I think the kitchen was an important milestone.”
Getting kids to buy in
In addition to gaining some knowledge, Gundersen says visiting kids become better eaters. Anyone who’s eaten a garden-fresh piece of produce knows it just tastes better.
“Yes, there is a difference between a leaf of spinach you pick right out of the ground and one that’s been frozen or even just sitting on a grocery store shelf,” she says. “There’s almost no comparison between the grow-it-yourself fresh vegetable and the ones you find at the store.”
But Gundersen says the kids are affected by something greater than the taste differential — a sense of investment. “If kids grow it, they will eat it — that’s what we’ve found. And if you invite kids to participate in the growing and the harvesting and deciding what goes into a dish, they will eat their creation,” says Gundersen. “It’s theirs, they’ve got ownership of it, investment in it, they’ve gone on this journey and they are going to eat their whatever-it-is.”
For many of the kids, the journey goes beyond their experience at the farm. Activities encourage children to create their own recipes based on what they taste out in the field, and those recipes go home with the kids.
“It’s theirs, and they get to take that recipe home and share it with their family,” adds Gundersen. “We believe in the power of young people to be agents of change within their own families, with regards to eating healthily and such.”
Loads of the Food Literacy Project’s activities will be on display Saturday from 11 a.m.-4 p.m. You can wander, taste and cook, and community partners from Squallis Puppeteers will be out with vegetable puppets to mingle. There will be music.
“It’s a bring-a-picnic kinda thing,” Gundersen says. “It’ll be a way for any and all to have a field-to-fork experience.”
For more information and directions to Oxmoor Farms (because, no, it is not behind the Oxmoor Mall), visit the Food Literacy Project website.