Benefits of tasting plants in the garden
“This garden is so pretty and there’s so much food” – 9 year old girl at Winchester at lunch recess on Monday.
I am super pleased when children taste new things or something that looks unfamiliar in the garden. When uninitiated, they often hesitate, their hands hovering over the plant, looking at their peers to see if they are going to eat a leaf too, and express a bit of discomfort. However, in most instances they eventually get over their apprehensions and are quick to exclaim “What else can we taste in the garden???!?”, after biting into something like the cherished sorrel leaf.
I have been working at Green Thumbs for over two years and during that time I have noticed a marked change in the children’s overall attitudes towards food plants and nature — they are much more willing to taste and eat things out of the garden, are more in tune with the bugs and plants, and have more eloquent observations about the garden and the seasons. One of the many activities we do when we run workshops is a garden tasting tour. Through these tasting tours the students have an opportunity to try new foods, develop their palates, consume extra nutrients and develop an appreciation for healthy and fresh foods.
Now, even when the children do not like what they’ve tasted…the majority of them are still willing to try again! This has a lot to do with the fact that they had a hand in growing and caring for the plants. Last week, one particular student at Rose P.S., kept spitting out (kind of comically) everything she tried because it was “too sour”, “too spicy”, “too minty”, “too onion-y”,” too strong” — yet she was not deterred and continued to try new food plants that were presented to her after each unsuccessful encounter with enthusiasm. She eventually did end up liking one thing – the orach! We also tell the children that sometimes you have to try something 10 or 30 times before liking it, and that also your taste buds change as you get older.
But besides the obvious aforementioned benefits, there are other social benefits that may not be obvious unless you are engaging with children in the garden.
Garden tasting tour social benefits I have witnessed in the past couple years:
Knowledge swapping – The education and learning is never just flowing from us educators to the children. Every time I am in the garden, I learn something from the children or from people in the community: New names or uses for plants, and insightful observations that are drawn out just from being out in the garden. Also, over the years many of the children have accrued plant identification skills and pass on that knowledge to their peers. They will tell one another where the sour leaf is located, about the amazingly crunchy mouse melons that have fruited, or what Jerusalem artichokes look like – Vegetable gossip! Increased food plant knowledge for all!
Development of shared values – The children develop a caring rapport with the garden and will often keep one another from over picking and/or picking something that is not ready to eat — having developed an appreciation for the plant they tasted during a tour. They care for the garden and get upset if someone does something that harms its balance or health (i.e. ripping or destroying plants, killing worms, vandalism of any sort). They love the idea of harvesting food for the school lunch program and will proudly display what they have picked to Ms. Charmyne, the Student Nutrition Co-ordinator, and help sort the goods in the kitchen so that everyone in the school can enjoy the salad bar or the meals made with the produce.
Increased sharing – Sharing of what one has picked is another thing I see in the garden. Many times, I will see children pass sorrel or chives through the fence to other children who are playing basketball or soccer. They will willingly share strawberries or some new tasting discovery — like parsley wrapped in mint. The other day, a girl in grade 2 shared extra garlic scapes she had picked with two of her peers, and all three munched on these raw scapes while working together on fixing a potato planter we had built earlier.
Cultural pride and exchanges – One of the most gratifying instances is when the children, many of whom are new Canadians, express delight in recognizing a plant that is used in their birth country of origin, or a typical ingredient that they eat at home. They identify with the plant and also are likely to share how they eat it or a story about themselves or loved ones. Often enough tasting something familiar in the garden will trigger a memory or thought. The best part is when there is cultural exchanges between the students!
I can’t help but have a gooey warm feeling in my heart when I see children running around the garden munching on greens, vegetables and fruits fresh from the garden as though it is the most normal and delightful pastime. You just have to see the children collectively shove kale or purple orach in their mouths and chew on Chinese chives to see what I mean. If all schools had food gardens and children had repeated exposure, they are surely to develop not only better eating habits, but also benefit socially…