Joseph Dummitt has been teaching after school programming through a charitable arm of the Chicago Public Library for the past 5 years. Monday through Thursday, from 3pm-6pm, he helps kids with their homework until their parents are able to pick them up. And sometimes, when they finish early enough, he teaches them how to garden and about where their food comes from.
There is zero budget for the food education component of this program, so tools were desperately needed to build raised beds and cultivate the gardens. Joseph reached out with a “dream list of tools” and I drove out to the McKinley Park library with all of the Craftsman gardening items I could get a hold of, including a trowel, a couple of cultivators, a bow rake, a curved claw hammer, a garden hoe, a digging fork, and a round point shovel. Joseph and a 2nd grader named Daron came out to the car to help bring all of the tools into the library. I’m not sure how to describe them except to say that they were outright gleeful when they saw the goods. I was in a lousy mood earlier that day. That mood was utterly obliterated.
When we got inside, I asked Joseph why he decided to put the extra effort in with the gardening program. He looked at me, then turned to Daron and said, “hey, what did they give you to eat at school today,” to which Daron replied “Ummm, chicken nuggets. Oh, and bread. Bread, too.” Then he looked back at me with the same expression of “seriously, how can I not.” Basically, kids just eat fillers and garbage that doesn’t look like food and in some ways really isn’t even food. Joseph grew up around farms and gardening with his family in Champaign, Illinois and couldn’t believe how detached these kids were from their food supply. So basically, he just took up the cause. He has been working with the library to carve out a little space and grow things with the kids, things that are hard to kill like green onions, tomatoes, leafy greens, and wild flowers. He said that when he picks something that they’ve grown and hands it to them to take a bite, they are completely mystified. Maybe even terrified.
As the population of the United States has transitioned from a predominantly agrarian society to an increasingly more urban one, our youth have become detached from a fundamental understanding of agriculture. Food just appears and lives in supermarkets. Chicago is around 85% paved, and many areas with patches of green space find out that those patches are contaminated from years of surrounding industry pollution, so it’s no wonder there is a disconnect in most urban environments. And don’t get me going on what food we subsidize in this country. It’s criminal.
This detachment from food and farming has gone on long enough that in some cases, multiple generations of families just have absolutely no idea how to cook real food. Microwaves or bust. And if you aren’t teaching these things at home, perhaps you assume that schools will surely pick up the slack, eh? Yeah, nope. School is supposed to arm kids with tools to navigate the world, but it hasn’t evolved to address our current crises and usually doesn’t address health and nutrition in any meaningful way, if at all. In fact, classes like home economics have been cut in most schools because they aren’t seen as being vital. Ha. Also, schools serve crap for lunch. 31 million kids pick up highly processed fast food from the lunch lady each day and wash it down with chocolate milk. It’s literally killing them.
According to the American Heart Association, about one in three American kids and teens is overweight or obese, nearly triple the rate in 1963. Instead of having to deal with skinned knees at recess, they are sedentary in their classrooms and dealing with issues that only adults experienced before like high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and elevated blood cholesterol levels. I can’t even imagine these things being discussed when I was a rambunctious little troublemaker in the early 80s. To top things off, obese kids are, of course, more prone to low self-esteem, negative body image and depression. Good thing we live in a world where kids are getting positive feedback from media and movies that people of all shapes and sizes are beautiful! Oh, wait.
So listen, support people like Joseph who are trying to combat this issue through education. Put some shovels into the hands of kids, dig some holes with them, and show them what real food is. Let them have that joy of picking something off of a vine and biting into it. If schools and families aren’t equipped to teach these kinds of skills, help out anyone who is able and willing. Or volunteer to do it yourself because most of us adults would surely benefit from more time in a garden as well. Stay tuned—I’ll be doing a follow-up post once those beds are built and the planting begins.