Hard work, the complementary gifts of soil and water, and the disappointment of seeds that never produce food can yield valuable lessons for children.
As parents, one of the most fundamental opportunities we can pass on to our children is that of experiential learning. Life is best lived hot (the beating noonday sun) or cold (the icy spray of water from a garden hose), but never lukewarm (encouraging consumers, even young ones, to think that food comes from the freezer aisle or from a cardboard box).
We will continue to make food tangible for our children. We depend on it, and by appreciating what we eat, we appreciate the people and the processes that brought it to our table.
My wife, the scientist of our family, has been the biggest proponent of this philosophy. Earlier this spring, our 1-year-old son strapped to her back, she guided the tiller our friend had loaned us through the soil that adjoins our side yard. (Lest you accuse me of spousal abuse, you should know I had previously blazed a dirt trail round and round the mini plot.)
Here are some lessons you can teach your children as they work their own small plots.
1. Safety should always be a priority. Our older sons, ever curious, watched with interest as his mummy and daddy cut up grassy clods to make way for a garden. They even tried to chase the tiller at times and got a stern warning. So the first message you can impart to your youth is that food production typically requires a combination of human and mechanical tools, some of which require an advanced degree in the school of hard knocks to understand how to operate them and avoid injury. Read all of the labels, ask a friend who knows the equipment for details on how to operate it or, better yet, do both.
2. Trust, patience and elbow grease produce results. Wouldn't it be nice if you could drop a seed into the soil and watch it sprout right in front of your eyes? This does not happen. Children understandably become impatient. Tend to the garden - or, in autumn and winter, the plants in your windowsill - on a daily basis. It's a ritual the entire family can enjoy, and it results in endless questions from little ones. Observe how your veggies are growing, which insects are calling them home and where new growth is appearing on your plants. Invite your children to brief you on their observations. Help them understand the role your family plays in watering and caring for plants and the role of soil, water and sunlight in creating food.
3. A community can be right here or across the ocean. Step inside any grocery store or walk up to a booth at any farmers market, and you'll be blown away by the number of foods you can buy. Some prefer to source everything locally, while others pay little attention to their food's origin. Our family of five opts to split the difference. We support our local farmers market but recognise it can be cost-prohibitive, so the grocery store gets the yeoman's share of our business. After bringing home groceries, we spend time reviewing the labels on our food to learn the story behind it - and apply a little imagination, as well. How, for example, do oranges migrate from South Africa to Missouri? Which trees did they come from? Who picked and packaged them? What was the journey like over the miles and miles they travelled?
If you track a particular food over weeks and months, you might find the origin shifts - we eat lots of blueberries, for example, and we spotted labels from North Carolina, New Jersey and Canada this year alone. We pull up maps on a smartphone so that the boys can see where those places are located.
Theoretically, we could become more or less self-sustaining. But our family chooses to blend our garden crop with the array of foods we enjoy from around the world. Our gift to the men and women who brought it to our table is that of time and attention to the abundance they have helped create. Our oldest sons get a far-off look in their eyes as they think about the places they have encountered by virtue of a food label and an iPhone. It might not sound particularly magical, but it might be as close as they ever come to experiencing some of these places whose bounty benefits all of us.
4. Waste is unacceptable. Earlier this year, our family purchased half a hog. My wife brought home two plastic coolers full of meat in white butcher paper or vacuum-sealed plastic, and the boys helped us pack them into the freezer. They learned to differentiate between bacon and ribs, pork chops and bone-in ham. We don't hide the fact that the livestock we read about in books or see up close at the fair gives us food just as plants do. That's why we draw a hard line on waste, even though it's so painfully tempting when you live in a place with endless choice and plentiful portions. If an animal took the time to live and produce meat that we enjoy, it's disrespectful to the animal and everyone in the food chain who helped raise it and process it if we throw it away. We eat lots of leftovers, compost vegetable scraps and give the leftovers to the chickens (yes, those chickens).
5. Respect the process. The fact that we have safe, abundant and diverse food on our plates, in our refrigerators and in our fields is a testament to agronomic advances, technological wonders, logistical craftsmanship and a whole lot of all-natural goodness that we do not have an ounce of control over.
If you and your children have not filled a dinner plate lately and simply sat before it in awe and gratitude of all of the factors that converged to make it possible, I'd encourage you to do this as a family. No matter what your philosophy on food, dietary preference or region of the world, it is our daily bread (gluten-full or -free) in all its forms that fuels our minds and hearts.
Nate Birt is a Missouri-based journalist with seven years of full-time writing and editing experience. He and his wife have three boys. Follow him @natebirt.