Why gardening matters for kids

When I was a kid, I lived on a hobby farm; we had cows, sheep, and a large garden in which we grew a variety of vegetables.  These were the days before smart phones, smart appliances, and smart cars.  We were living in a 2-3 channel TV universe, and for a brief time the most interesting ring tone in the house was the one that identified that the call that was for you, not one of the neighbours on your party line.  But I’m not complaining, really.

I’m sure my mom remembers me complaining when we’d get home from school and find that she had a couple of bushels of beans for us to snap, or peas for us to shell.  That’s probably the last thing we wanted to do after school.  But we appreciated how great these vegetables tasted fresh, and later, when we pulled them from the freezer.  Most importantly, we learned how to grow our own food, and what it’s supposed to look like, taste like, and how it is supposed to nourish us.  We mimicked our parents by growing small gardens of our own (when we weren’t helping out in the main garden).

My first garden.  There are edibles in there somewhere.

Society has changed, though.  We spend more time indoors and connected to devices; we’re often detached from the natural environment in which we exist.  Fewer parents garden, and fewer children are educated about food production.  The term nature deficit disorder has been coined to explain some of the behavioural issues that may arise in a today’s housebound kids.  But it’s more than just behaviour.  It’s a matter of basic health, both ours and of the environment.  When we eat food that’s been contaminated by pesticides and other harmful chemicals, we’re exposing ourselves to a host of problems.  Most susceptible are the workers who produce this food, and children (unfortunately, in some countries, these groups are one and the same).

Children are especially susceptible to the harmful effects of pesticide residues due to their lower body mass, rapid development, and higher rates of consumption of affected products.  F FIn children, exposure to certain pesticides from residues in food can cause delayed development; disruptions to the reproductive, endocrine, and immune systems; certain types of cancer; and damage to other organs.  FPrenatal exposure to certain pesticides can affect cognitive development and behavior.  FSeveral studies have found that pesticide levels in children dropped to low or undetectable levels when test subjects consumed an organic  G diet.  (source)

In an effort to repeatedly mass produce on the same parcels of land, we’re putting ourselves at risk.

We can’t look at food the same way that we do shoes, and assume that what’s in the store is good for us.  The reality is that unless you are buying local and organic, there is a good change that you are ingesting harmful chemicals.  But unless one has grown one’s own food or researched food production, one may be detached from the process.  Food may just be another pair of shoes that one orders and assumes that if they’re the right size, they won’t cause blisters.

Studies show that children who are encouraged to garden appreciate ecology more and learn to respect their environment.  More importantly, they learn to enjoy a wider variety of fresh, healthy vegetables, and they make more informed food choices throughout their lives.  If you can, grow some food, either in your home, at your school, or in a community centre.  It’s not just the plants that may flourish.

Food subsidies

Between 1995 and 2010, $16.9 billion in tax dollars subsidized four common food additives—corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, corn starch, and soy oils (which are frequently processed further into hydrogenated vegetable oils).
• Outside of commodity crops, other agricultural products receive very little in federal subsidies. Since 1995, taxpayers spent only $262 million subsidizing apples, which is the only significant federal subsidy of fresh fruits or vegetables.
• If these agricultural subsidies went directly to consumers to allow them to purchase food, each of America’s 144 million taxpayers would be given $7.36 to spend on junk food and 11 cents with which to buy apples each year—enough to buy 19 Twinkies but less than a quarter of one Red Delicious apple apiece.” http://www.foodsafetynews.com/…/Apples-to-Twinkies-USPIRG.p…

From the side dish to the main course

Recent studies have shown that the ideal diet is one that is rich in vegetables and fruits.  The benefits to our health increase if we go beyond the traditional options, such as carrots, potatoes, and beans, and eat a wide variety of vegetables and fruits.  No one plant contains all of the nutrients we need, so it’s best to mix it up, and enjoy a rainbow of colours, textures, and types.

Health benefits

The benefits are widespread:

A diet rich in vegetables and fruits can lower blood pressure, reduce risk of heart disease and stroke, prevent some types of cancer, lower risk of eye and digestive problems, and have a positive effect upon blood sugar which can help keep appetite in check. (source)

There is a growing body of evidence suggesting that dietary patterns emphasizing fruits and vegetables may be linked to better psychological health.[i] A recent study found that higher fruit and vegetable consumption may increase well-being, curiosity and creativity, possibly related to micronutrients and carbohydrate composition.[ii] This is probably related to the fact you are giving your body and brain more healthy vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals and fiber. (source)

Meatless Monday

The Meatless Monday campaign, which started in 2003, encourages participants to abstain from meat on Mondays as a way to improve their health and that of the planet.  Why not expand this campaign to your garden, and try to grow a favourite vegetable, or something new, and use it as a centrepiece for your Monday meals?

Fun vegetables to grow

Here are some suggestions for interesting and healthy vegetables to try:

  • Rainbow chard is rich in vitamins.  There are many ways to cook it, or you can enjoy it in salads.  You can use it as a replacement for recipes that call for cooked spinach.
  • Sweet potatoes are extremely high in vitamin A and rich in fibre.  They are delicious baked and in soups.
  • Beets are versatile.  You can eat the greens or the beetroots themselves, or grate them and add them to cake.  They come in a variety of colours, like red, gold, and white.  They’re high in folates, iron, and other minerals.
  • Kale, like most green vegetables, is high in iron.  It likes the cold weather and doesn’t mind a little snow.
  • Eggplants/aubergines are often used as replacements for meat.  There are several varieties to choose from.
  • Winter squash are great in soups, casseroles, or as side dishes.  You can grow them in many colours and unusual shapes.
  • Ground cherries taste like a combination between pineapples and strawberries.  They can be eaten fresh or used in preserves, pies, and other sweet treats.

More resources

Information on plant-based proteins.

Phytochemicals

Phytochemicals are plant chemicals that provide us with protective or disease preventive properties. Plants produce these chemicals to protect themselves, but they can also protect us. Other than these protective qualities, they contain no essential nutrients. They’re unassuming superheroes!
There are several types of phytochemicals. Here are a few examples:
  • Antioxidants bind with highly reactive substances called free radicals, which damage DNA. There are a few types of antioxidants. Allyl sulfides are found in onions and garlic, whereas carotenoids are found in fruits and carrots. Flavonoids can be ingested from fruits and vegetables, and polyphenols from tea and grapes.
  • Indoles, found in cabbages, may reduce the risk of breast cancer.
  • Saponins, found in beans, interfere with cell DNA replication, thereby preventing the multiplication of cancer cells.
  • Capsaican, found in hot peppers, protects DNA from carcinogens.
  • Isoflavones, found in soy, imitate human estrogens, and therefore help to reduce symptoms associated with menopause and osteoporosis.
  • Allicin, from garlic, has antibacterial properties.
  • Proanthocyanidins, found in cranberries, physically bind to cell walls, thereby preventing pathogens from adhering to cell walls. That’s why cranberries reduce the risk of urinary tract infections.
Phytochemicals are best obtained from raw fruits and vegetables, since they are largely destroyed by cooking. Broccoli, spinach, brussels sprouts, peas, asparagus, artichokes, cauliflower, sweet potato, peppers, strawberries, tomatoes, apples, cabbages, beans, cherries, winter squash, apricots, peaches, grapes, onions, garlic, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, plums, and lettuce are all excellent sources.

Let’s get kids involved

Many of us are familiar with Canada’s Food Guide and its equivalents: http://hc-sc.gc.ca/fn-an/alt_format…. This guide, and various scientific studies, state that vegetables and fruits should make up a significant portion of a person’s diet, regardless of their age. Fruits and vegetables provide nutrients that are vital for your health and the maintenance of your body. They may reduce risk of stroke, certain types of cancer, heart diseases, and type-2 diabetes.
Despite this knowledge, though, we’re constantly falling short in our daily recommendations. A 2015 study indicated that 87 percent of Americans don’t meet recommendations for fruit consumption, and 91 percent don’t meet recommendations for vegetable consumption: http://www.livescience.com/51500-fr…. In fact, some studies show a decline in the consumption of vegetables and fruits.
But why are we so reluctant to eat what we need to properly fuel our bodies?

What we eat when we are young shapes what we crave when we are older

So what do we need to do, besides cut back on the sweets and snack foods and force ourselves to eat more veggies?

We need to get children involved in food preparation

Anyone who has ever known (or been) a child has witnessed the pride they exhibit when they accomplish something on their own. This , of course, extends to gardening.

It doesn’t have to be complicated

Here are some great tips on getting your kids involved: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/gardenin….

We can share what we learn and grow together

Your neighbours (or you) may not have enough space to grow plants. There may be gaps in one’s knowledge of healthy food choices, and in food preparation skills. Or, there may be issues with money and or time. But we can do this together. Invite your kids’ friends to try something from your garden, or to take home some plants to their families. Share seeds, vegetables, space, laughs, recipes. Start a community garden. Instill a craving for vegetables that will last a lifetime.
Make it fun.