Midwest Food Connection (MFC) is a nonprofit educational organization supported by Twin Cities food coops, including Seward, our largest sponsor. Since 1993, Midwest Food Connection has brought informative and memorable experiences gardening, cooking and eating healthy food to elementary school classrooms. In our 20- year history, we have reached more than 60,000 children with our programming. In the fall, we walk into the classroom with a tall cornstalk in tow. The next week we hide root vegetables around the room for students to discover in an imaginary root cellar. In the winter, we paste beans to a map of the world and look at potatoes full of eyes. As the growing season begins in the spring, we schlep buckets of soil into the classroom to start seedlings that students tend before bringing them home. As our mission states, “Midwest Food Connection brings educational adventures in food, cooking, and gardening to children and their families.” This is what we do. The question is why? And why does food education matter?
We have a serious health problem in this country. One in five school-aged children is obese; a percentage that has more than tripled since the 1970s. Perhaps the most obvious reason for our work is to encourage healthy eating behavior in children. When it comes to impacting our health, we have the most say over the food we choose to eat. This is particularly true for children who may have limited say over their lifestyles but might make choices at the dinner table. Our job is to provide the knowledge, positive experiences and tools to empower them to make healthy decisions. By bringing real food into the classroom, sharing stories, cooking together, and tasting delicious recipes, we encourage trying new foods in a fun and approachable way.
To understand a food is to understand where it comes from, how it grows, and what it looks like in nature. Through our lesson content and our co-op partnerships, MFC directly and indirectly motivates environmentally conscious behavior. In our early fall curriculum, for example, we teach a lesson called “Eat Local,” which explores the many reasons for eating local foods. Students brainstorm these reasons and discuss the benefits of decreasing fossil fuel emissions, supporting local economies, and eating seasonally to care for the land. By bringing locally grown produce from the co-op into the classroom, we connect children to the food that grows only miles away. Our students are inspired to choose the foods they learn about in our lessons. In response, some families decide to purchase these local foods and start to plug into the local food system. We move the needle on the demand for local foods, fruits and vegetables, and sustainable agriculture.
By learning about and plugging into a local food system, MFC students become connected to the greater Minnesota community. Whether tasting a Honeycrisp apple in class, going to the co-op with their families, seeing pictures of local farmers, visiting farms around the Twin Cities during our field trips, or starting to grow food in their own neighborhoods, young people connect the dots of the food system. As one of our educators remarked, we bring the “human aspect” to food. We say, “think about the farmer who grew the food you’re about to taste.” When kids learn about the support we give to farmers in our state or the sustainability of our collective actions, they begin to uphold one of the seven national Photo by Susie Hessburg co-op principles: Concern for Community.
Food lies at the intersection of health, environment, community and culture. By taking a holistic approach to food education, we broaden the worldview and historical view of children’s thinking. As our winter series “Gifts of Many Cultures” expresses in each lesson, many of the fruits, vegetables and dishes we enjoy eating in the United States. have been brought here by immigrants and refugees. We explore the history of the potato in Ireland, the soybean in China, and millet in Western Africa. We learn about the Native farming practice of growing the “three sisters” of corn, squash and beans together. “We’re not only increasing children’s exposure to more healthy food,” MFC Executive Director Uli Koester explains, “we’re also showing them how to be sensitive to other cultures and be aware of where our food is coming from.” For a young generation that is growing up in an increasingly multicultural world, we celebrate foods from many cultures. As Uli reflected, “We’re not always just giving new choices, we’re also validating the choices some students have already made.” Whether trying the Indian dish of dhal or biting into a Mejdool date, MFC students from kindergarten through fifth grade have learned to uphold multiculturalism as a gift.