Children Learn Farming
In São Paulo, a group of sixth graders is busy at work. They are in school but not at their desks. Instead, they have seeds, soil, and gardening tools. They are preparing soil for planting. This digging is going on in a quiet middle-class neighborhood in a garden that belongs to Leão Machado School, a large public school.
Today, the adolescents are mixing coconut fiber into the soil because it helps to hold the seeds in the dirt. Then they will add in the compost. As the students dig, they pull back chunks of dirt, creating shallow pits where earthworms wriggle in the freshly dug soil. Mateus Feitosa de Almeida, 12, slowly pulls back the soil around a worm. “We have to pull like that so we don’t hurt the worms,” he explains. “If we take them out, it’s bad for the soil.”
The children are working in this gardening class under the guidance of two teachers, Daniel Giglio Colombo and Marta Martins. This is the second year of the project, says Colombo, who helped start the garden. “We’re going to grow the same things we did last year — arugula, lettuce, radishes.”
The vegetables they grow are used in school meals. The real aim of the school garden is not to supply food, however, but to teach students where food comes from so they can develop a connection to their food.
“When we ask urban students where lettuce comes from, they say the market,” their teacher says. “They have lost contact with nature, the soil, sowing, and growing of crops.” And that is reflected in their diets, he says, which are increasingly unhealthy.
Just like in the US, highly processed foods such as fast food, soda, and high-fructose corn syrup have become all too popular here in Brazil. And obesity rates are rising, even among children. It is a nation-wide problem that has alarmed the government and public health experts in the country.
Initially, students used to reject fresh food, says Martins. She and her colleagues hoped that the school garden would change that. “We wanted to create better eating habits with this project,” Martins says. “We wanted them to improve their eating and become healthier.”
This idea is motivating school gardens across Brazil. The school gardens idea started 12 years ago as a pilot program in five schools, as part of a project by the United Nations Food and Agricultural Program. Today, there are a few thousand school gardens in 700 cities and towns throughout Brazil. Many are run independently by schools while others are supported by city governments.
It’s hard to know yet whether school gardens have improved children’s health, says Albaneide Peixinho, who ran Brazil’s school meal program for 13 years. However, she says schools are reporting that the gardens have made students more aware of their food. “With school gardens, they see that food comes from the Earth,” Peixinho says, and they are eating healthier.
Some studies show that the students are influencing how their families eat. “Parents say that the kids are eating more fruits and vegetables.” Sarah Campos, 14, took the school garden class last year at Leão Machado in São Paulo. “I had never eaten radishes before,” she says. But she tried some when she and her classmates cooked radishes they had grown in the school garden. “I loved it so much that I even had a second plate,” Campos says. Now, she eats radishes often. “I ask my mom to make them for lunch sometimes. She puts them in the salad with carrots, and with potatoes. It’s very good.”
[From the PRI website. Photos by Rhitu Chatterjee]