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Lunch Lessons: Farm Promotes Healthy Eating Through Education, Culture

ECO City Farms, an urban farm near Hyattsville, serves as an education tool for both students and parents.

Right in the backyard of Hyattsville sits a small urban farm. While the two-year-old Edmonston farm has no immediate plans to work with schools on providing produce to students, the farmers promote healthy eating through a side door—education.

At ECO City Farms, inspiring students to eat healthy requires more than just handing them the right nutrients. The key, they believe, is to get them curious about the origin of the ingredients and reconnect them with their food.

“Our generation ... has a complete disconnect with food,” Viviana Lindo, the director of community education, said, adding that since much of their food is bought at stores, most kids do not know the origins of the food they are eating. What’s even worse, she said, is that sometimes, they don’t even bother to ask.

Some parents, like Hyattsville resident T. Carter Ross, whose children attend Hyattsville Elementary School, regularly take their children to the local farmers market to teach them where their food comes from. Occasionally, Ross also takes them to a farm in northern Maryland to directly show them how produce is grown.

“I would tell them, ‘You see this pig? If you want pork chops tonight, that’s him right there,’” he said, jokingly.

Other parents engage their children through books. “We read lots of story books about nutrition,” said Kelly Bryan, whose children also attend Hyattsville Elementary. “You go to the Hyattsville Library … and ask [the librarians] for books on nutrition, and there’s just lots to choose from.”

See what area schools are doing to promote healthy eating by reading our Lunch Lessons series.

But to fill in the gap left by parents who may not have the time to teach their kids healthy eating, the staff at the small urban farm invites students, many of whom are from low-income families, to take part in their Summer Youth Program. During the colder seasons, they offer many organizations and nearby schools tours and volunteer opportunities around the farm, where visitors learn how to grow and harvest a variety of vegetables popular in other cultures.

“We don’t stick to just lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers. We got bok-choy, kohlrabi, collard greens,” Lindo said. “We try to include other traditions and other customs.”

The youth program not only teaches student how to cook cultural foods like vegetarian sushi during the summer, it also gives them a lesson about how different cultures think about food—something that Lindo pushes for because of the large immigrant population in the community.

“I’ve learned a lot about how other countries have done so much in regard to food and how they think about food. They’re not just thinking about, ‘Oh, I’m hungry and I’m going to stop by McDonald's and eat a hamburger,’” she said. “It’s more like ‘I’m hungry so I have to make sure I’m home by two o’clock so I have time to cook.’”

“Fast food culture doesn’t really exist at home,” said volunteer Alkis Downward, 23, who moved to the United States from Greece only five years ago. “A lot of the food consumed in Greece is pretty local and there are a lot of vegetables included in the diet. There’s meat as well but it’s eaten in moderation.”

But the education doesn’t just stop with students; parents also need to learn about healthy eating so they know how to provide a nutritious meal for their children.

Rather than having her children buy school lunch, Bryan makes sure they have all the necessary nutrients by using lunch cubes to pack their daily lunches.

“I buy these little lunch cubes, which are nice because they don’t have any waste. And when you open it, they usually have a sandwich—something filling—in here, and vegetables and fruits in there,” she said as she pointed to a two-sided, three-compartment container that folds into one compact cube.

“Parents are ultimately responsible for feeding their children [so it’s good] to have them be conscious of it,” said Executive Director Bruce Purnell of Higher Hopes, Inc., a community-based organization to advance education for students. “I wasn’t aware that there was a whole [healthy eating] movement, but that is what is needed—that need to be aware.”

In October, Purnell invited Lindo and ECO’s founder and CEO Margaret Morgan-Hubbard to join Prince George’s County Councilmember Derrick Davis’ Annual Parent Power Summit. There the two presented their “Bento Lunch Box” initiative, an idea borrowed from the Japanese tradition of creating artistic and elaborate lunches.

“Basically, we’re teaching parents that there is [not only] one way to prepare lunch boxes for kids because either they will send them healthy lunches or [the kids] will eat whatever is served at schools,” Lindo said. “Parents should give a little more input and not only just making lunches for the sake of sending food, but be creative in your kitchen, you know, when you teach kids about food.”

The feedback from attendees, according to Purnell, was generally positive since people don’t usually think about the different ways to pack a lunch. “It’s definitely a positive impact on many communities, especially in urban areas,” he said.

“We have to accept the fact that we don’t know everything, we have to learn,” Lindo said.

Tell Us: Let us know, how do you teach your kids how to eat healthy?

Farmer Joe December 20, 2012 at 01:09 PM
Very Cool! I hope that ECO City will continue to thrive and gain community support. Local food growing is the easiest way to have a significant impact on the environment, economy, social justice, and health of all who are involved. Thank you ECO City!
Maia December 27, 2012 at 03:54 PM
This is a wonderful initiative. We are also launching a new product, Yumbox, which through its design promotes nutritionally balanced lunches for children. The bento-like lunches definitely promote variety and creativity. www.yumboxlunch.com

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