The U.S. has undergone dramatic changes throughout its history, but perhaps the most profound shift has been the concentration of its population in urban centers. Before the industrial revolution, only one in twenty citizens lived in urban areas. Today, only one in five live in the country.

This process of urbanization reshaped the nation’s politics and identity—and also had an indelible impact on children. A century ago, children spent the majority of their time outdoors engaged in farm chores and play. Today, the average American child spends as little as 30 minutes of unstructured play time out of doors, according to the National Wildlife Federation (NWF). The NWF blames this state of affairs for increases in childhood obesity and mental health issues.

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The non-profit GROW La Crosse, which began as a coalition of educators and parents, reconnects kids with nature by giving them opportunities to grow—and enjoy—their own produce from school gardens. The organization meets its mission with two basic projects: on-farm experiences for youngsters, and school garden projects.

GROW La Crosse brings city kids to Deep Roots Community Farm, an organic, sustainable operation about 12 miles from La Crosse, for school field trips, farm camps, and structured field days. The camps run throughout the spring and summer months and, depending on the age group, mix a variety of traditional camp activities with farm-related learning. Kids spend their time on the farm caring for livestock, identifying plant species, understanding habitat, and learning sustainable practices. Recent field day topics have included cob building (a style of green home building using earth, straw and other fibers) and natural print-making techniques.

In addition to bringing children to the farm, the organization’s school garden projects bring the farm to the children. Currently the group tends about 450 square feet of garden space at three area schools, and interest is growing. Recently at one elementary school site, the group added new space for a permaculture plot to grow raspberries and ground cherries (a student favorite), as well as herbs, wildflowers, and other edibles.

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What ties all these programs together is the notion that children will make healthier choices—for their own bodies and for the planet—when they truly connect to their food by planting, tending and harvesting the results. And this is vital work. The organization recently found that more than half of the students at one school-based program reported that they regularly eat zero fruits and vegetables.

In the time since the garden program launched, this reluctance to try something new changed, according to Heather Skiles, a cook at the school. “They get excited to try the items on the salad bar and are far more willing to try them since they helped grow them,” she says.

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Her experience, and those of other cooks connected to similar school garden projects across the country, proves the point that when kids are connected to the source of their food, when they truly understand the methods and magic of seed-to-table, they bring a new kind of reverence to mealtime. And in our increasingly urbanized world, that’s a value we desperately need.


Organic Valley has always been committed to fostering organic health and wellness in the youth of America and is proud to support GROW La CrosseHear more about their work here on Rootstock Radio.