Encouraging children of the soil

Published 8:36 pm Monday, August 18, 2014

At Al Whitener’s Suffolk farm last week, teachers participating in a Chesapeake Bay Foundation professional development program armed themselves with some great lessons for their young charges during the upcoming school year.

An entertaining speaker with a dry wit, Whitener told the educators all about the many different vegetables and fruits he grows and has grown — as well as his annual bumper crops of “grass and weeds.”

Though it’s inside the limits of the city in which they live, Whitener’s farm would be unfamiliar territory for most students inside the teachers’ classrooms.

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But by visiting the farm Wednesday, and hearing how Whitener grows his elephant garlic, sunchokes, sour cherries and other crops, teachers will take a little of it back to their classrooms for the benefit of their students.

In achieving that, the foundation’s Locally Grown Classrooms program, which took place over four days last week, will have a transformative impact on urban communities.

Children living in Saratoga or College Square, for instance, don’t have the same connection to food and the earth as they would if they lived on the land. But with a little know-how and encouragement, they can still cultivate vegetables in their backyard, in pots on the windowsill, or in their school garden.

The idea of the program, according to the foundation’s Yancey Powell, is to give teachers the skills and knowledge to be able to teach students how mainstream agriculture can have an impact on the environment, and how they can play their own small part in advancing the local food movement.

“Big ag” isn’t all bad: Great advances have been made over the years in creating a food delivery system that can feed people in cities at a low cost, increasing yields and overcoming pests and diseases.

Freeing people from food production has increased our free time and allowed the creative economy to bloom.

But many experts say it has come with an environmental cost. It has also cost the knowledge deficit that we see today, when many young people don’t know much about where the food they eat comes from, and care even less.

Every time I step onto a school campus and see a student-cultivated vegetable garden, my day brightens a little.

From the experience of my own childhood, nothing much enriches a young life more than planting something in the soil and watching it grow and mature, then harvesting it, preparing it and eating it.

Other concerns will overtake students’ lives as they get older, but when teachers lead their classes in a little vegetable-raising, students at least will have had that experience at one point in their lives.