Rainbeau Ridge, a small farm in suburban New York, is seeking to educate children from an early age about how their food starts its life on a farm. Lisa Schwartz, the owner and founder of Rainbeau Ridge Farm, has helped children become physically invested in everything from growing their own vegetables to learning how to milk goats.
Emma Diebold, Special Events Coordinator at American Progress, spoke with Schwartz and Karen Sabeth, director of education and special programs at Rainbeau Ridge, to learn more about reshaping the next generation’s relationship with food.
Emma Diebold: I’m here with Lisa Schwartz, cheese maker, owner, and founder of Rainbeau Ridge farm as well as Karen Sabeth who is the director of Education and Special Programs at Rainbeau Ridge, and they are both co-authors of the book Over the Rainbeau.
Lisa, I’d like to start with you. I know you’ve run several programs on your farm for kids to teach them about sustainable agriculture and growing their own food. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about these programs as well as why you think they are valuable not only for the kids themselves but to the community as a whole?
Lisa Schwartz: We have been running children’s programming for about five years now and it grew out of the farming platform itself. We had developed a strong following for our produce and our cheese that we were producing on the farm and when a handful of our customers came by, most of the moms said they were sure their kids would love to participate in something on the farm and as we started noodling this idea it became very clear that we had an opportunity to teach children where their food came from; and that was going to be, again, in terms of the produce program as well as dairy program. So we modeled the program in the early winter months and we figured if we could produce something in the winter there was no doubt we could do it all year.
We started with something as simple as taking care of birds in the winter and we tapped our maple trees at the appropriate time to draw the sap and created maple syrup with the kids. Then one thing led to another and we were growing a vegetable garden we referred to as their ABC garden—where we planted vegetables, literally, from A to Z. And we used the opportunities in the middle of the summer to milk goats and make goat cheese with them, and so that really was the genesis of the program.
The importance and the benefits were seen from the get go. Kids really could identify physically with their food and once they owned the growing piece. Once they were invested in growing their own food it was amazing to see them eat the fruits of their labor—literally. Children whose mom’s swore that they never ate vegetables were seen picking peas off the vine and popping them like candy.
E: I know you’ve talked a lot about the term “food literacy” in regards to these programs, and I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about what that means?
L: Sure, I think over time all of us—especially adults and women of my generation which is the 50 plus—have moved away from the kitchen and away from the ingredients as we have taken jobs away from the home to a large extent, and I would say most of our family members have followed suit. And we are quick to rely on others to make food for us, whether that’s eating out in a restraint or the pre-prepared, pre-packaged, and processed foods that we consume in the home. And so as we’ve moved and created that distance we’ve lost the arts and the ability and the literacy in terms of connecting with the underlying meal ingredients and how to prepare them. So something as routine as a beet—which I think everyone would say they’ve consumed —so many people do not know how to prepare that beet to eat in the home.
There’s a commercial on TV where the mom reaches through the orange juice in the refrigeration unit at the supermarket until she’s in the orange grove. But there are so few kids who really understand that the oranges really come off those trees.
So literacy is just reconnecting with where our food comes from and how to use it so that we can use real ingredients and cook more healthfully.
E: Great. Karen—I was wondering if you could talk a little about the kinds of reactions you’ve seen from parents? What sort of changes do they notice in their kids at home as a result of these programs?
Karen Sabeth: I’d be happy to. Parents have told us time and time again that the programs at Rainbeau Ridge have literally changed their lives and the lives of their kids and their families, and they’ve given us some really wonderful anecdotes.
One parent told us that she was in the car with her two children and they were discussing what they were going to have for dinner. The kids said that they wanted to have some cheese and the mother said, “OK, well, let’s go to the supermarket.” But the kids said, “Oh no, please we have to go to Rainbeau Ridge because that’s the cheese that I love and I’ve seen the goats that give us the milk to make the cheese.”
Another of the anecdotes was printed in our book Over the Rainbeau. A mom, Whitney, says, “The boys have learned so much from how to feed chickens to how to weed a garden. My five-year-old cooks now and is obsessed with animals. He wants his own farm now and he promises to feed the chickens. My two-year-old is fearless and practically herds the sheep. They both now say that cucumbers are awesome and ask to make pickles at home. They know that maple syrup must come from trees, not plastic bottles and that apples don’t grow with stickers on them.” And I just think that is an incredibly telling quote and we’re thrilled that we can be a piece of that. I just hope we can share this with more and more people over time.
E: That’s great. It seems that they have really learned a lot and changed their attitudes toward food in general. Lisa, I know that you have done some work bringing inner-city kids to the farm. How do they react to what they experience there and what do you observe them taking away from the experience?
L: Sure. Well, most of the kids who participate in our programs are suburban children who do have their own backyards and in some cases are growing vegetables on their own. But inner-city kids are limited in the access they have to gardens, although I’m happy to say that more and more cities are doing community gardens where space allows. But for the children who come up for the summer programs—which is the equivalent of a fresh air type of program—to inner-city schools who come up as a first-grade class everything from being able to sit on grass and eat a picnic lunch to getting close and personal with the animals is incredible.
When a first-grade class came up from an inner-city school the teacher asked them in advance what type of animals they would expect to see on the farm, and believe it or not, when she put a few straw ideas out there and asked “Do you think you’ll see a tiger?” There was more than one child who said yes. But by the end of the visit they had figured out which animals belonged on a farm and which in a zoo, but the concept of a farm and connecting those animals to food sources as opposed to just animals was a concept that they really had to noodle over and learn about while they were here.
Kids also got the chance to understand the parts of vegetables they eat. At the end they understood the difference between a root vegetable and eating the root from a plant as opposed to eating leaves, and to consider those ideas. But they were truly touched and moved to be able to be in the presence of nature. And seeing things and making that “Ah ha” connection between something like a tomato and ketchup—they understand ketchup, they know that it comes in packages, but to see it actually be made from the raw ingredients themselves was really quite special to them.
E: Karen, how do you think the principles behind these programs can be brought to a broader audience, and how can these ideas become a more normalized part of kids’ everyday lives? Do you see a place in school curriculums for these sorts of ideas to become more naturalized?
K: We definitely think that a lot of these concepts not only could be but should be integrated into school curriculums so that it can become part of everyday lives. There is a tendency to offer special one-time programs at schools and while that’s helpful and a step in the right direction, there is a big difference and we believe its so much better if these things can be fully integrated into the program so that on a day-to-day basis the children are exposed and really start to embrace the idea of connections between nature and food and the preservation of our environment.
For example, within the math curriculum in a school instead of Johnny going to the store to buy donuts, he can go to the store to buy carrots. When we see those kinds of homework pages change we’ll know that there has really been a sea change in the school’s curriculum. But even if it’s possible, as many schools have done, to adopt the types of schoolyard programs that Alice Waters has championed where they can actually participate in these activities on a day-to-day basis, we see that extension into cooking projects, which people can do not only in school but also at home and that on a day-to-day basis being able to do projects with vegetables, with the basic ingredients, will be able to make a big difference for these children.
E: That brings me to my final question. Lisa, how optimistic are you that the next few generations will grow up with a better, more natural relationship to their own food and agriculture as a whole?
L: Overall, I’m very optimistic. I categorize three cohorts: The 30-plus-year-olds who are regaining food literacy who are being retrained, and are participating in gardening and cooking classes to reconnect with real ingredients. The generation of the twenty-somethings, they really get it. They get the importance of connecting with food and food literacy and are actively engaged in programs and a lifestyle that are getting them closer to their food sources. But it’s the youngest kids, for whom if we incorporate these things in homes and in the school curriculum whereby these habits will become second nature—they won’t know that they’ve relearned them; they’re going to learn them from the start and from the get go, and by making these habits second nature we will be well on our way to fixing a problem that we’ve created and reclaiming that food literacy that belongs as part of everyone’s vocabulary.
E: Well, thank you both for joining us for our “It’s Easy Being Green” series.
L: We’re grateful that you had us on. We think it’s a wonderful program and we’re all growing in that direction of greenness and healthy eating. By eating healthy we will be solving so many problems from environmental to health issues. It’s a pivotal issue in the green world.
For more information on Rainbeau Ridge please visit their website.
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