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Helping kids cultivate healthy eating habits; Santa Cruz County nonprofits making a difference

Making healthy food choices is an important life skill that too many kids just never get the chance to learn. But what if kids were given the opportunity to help grow or cook their own food? Would they adopt healthier eating habits that last a lifetime, and even contribute to the health and wellbeing of others in their community?

Kids with the nonprofit Food What?!

FoodWhat?! students, Spring 2021

(FoodWhat?!)

Those working with educational nonprofits in Santa Cruz County believe that answer is yes. Life Lab, Farm Discovery at Live Earth, Teen Kitchen Project, and FoodWhat?! are four local organizations that all share the common goal of teaching kids the value of healthy eating. While each organization has a different focus and target age-group, all four are working directly with K-12 kids to teach food literacy—understanding how our food choices affect us and our environment—in both virtual and hands-on settings.

Kids picking fruit in the field

Kids in the field with Farm Discovery at Live Earth

(Farm Discovery)

Learning from the ground up

“There’s a consistent body of research that shows that giving kids the opportunity to learn about growing food firsthand helps them develop lifelong healthy eating habits that support wellness,” says Don Burgett, co-executive director for Life Lab, an organization that works with public elementary schools in Santa Cruz and Watsonville to create on-site veggie gardens that serve as outdoor classrooms.

“Pulling carrots out of the ground, picking tomatoes, or harvesting Swiss chard brings out kids’ natural curiosity and creates a much greater openness to trying new foods.”

It’s not unusual for kids—some of whom may experience food insecurity at home—to encounter new foods and tastes for the first time in garden or farm-based classrooms like those they spend time in through Life Lab, Farm Discovery at Live Earth, and FoodWhat?! programs. With time, those frequent encounters with fresh-from-the-field veggies can evolve into healthy food preferences, as well as a greater understanding of how sustainable farming impacts the health of our environment.

Girl with potatoes they harvested

“Food is so connected to our health,” says Jessica Ridgeway, executive director at Farm Discovery at Live Earth. “The way we grow food has a lot to do with how healthy that food can be.” At Live Earth’s 150-acre farm in Watsonville, kids of all ages learn about soil, composting, and how organic and regenerative farming practices can positively affect both a food’s nutrient level as well as our environment as a whole. “Kids are eager to learn about soil, how it holds water, and all the good bugs” that contribute to a complete ecology, says Ridgeway. That fascination naturally extends to the vegetables as they come out of the ground. “It’s almost like magic,” she says. “As soon as kids are in the field, they’re willing to try lots of new foods that they wouldn’t necessarily try at home.”

Cooking for good

Little girl holding a plate of salad she made

Teaching kids about food as it grows is an essential part of helping kids acquire healthy eating habits; equally essential is teaching kids how to prepare healthy meals. At Teen Kitchen Project, kids gain real-world, hands-on experience preparing thousands of nutritious meals for those in the community fighting critical illness such as cancer. At FoodWhat?!, teens spend time in the kitchen learning to prepare meals with the food they’ve helped grow in the field—and then take that knowledge home to their families.

“Empowering youth to develop healthy relationships with food, and to see food as medicine, is really central to helping them improve their well-being.”

— Kayla Kumar, FoodWhat?!

Keeping education going

Kid with tractor

As nonprofits, all four organizations rely heavily on support from individuals and businesses in the community to keep their education programs going. In addition to making direct donations, parents can volunteer to help maintain garden classrooms, attend field-to-farm benefit dinners, and sign up to support specific organizations through their employer matching programs. Shopping retailers who prioritize local giving is another good way to generate support.

Donation programs from retailers like New Leaf Community Markets’ Envirotokens—which “rewards” customers with donation tokens for bringing their own bags—are especially key to helping these local nonprofits bridge funding gaps, says FoodWhat?!’s Kumar. “Envirotokens provides a dedicated source of funding for us that allows us to focus on the programs we offer and meeting the needs of our youth rather than having to focus so much on raising funds.”

Farmers and their tractor

Robin Nardello, Community Relations Specialist at New Leaf, sees supporting these food education nonprofits as an investment in our children’s future. “Teaching kids early about where our food comes from, how it’s grown, and the many delicious ways to prepare it can lead kids to make healthier choices as adults.”

Kids painting at the farm

Farm Discovery at Live Earth’s Ridgeway believes teaching food literacy can also lead to more peaceful communities. “Gathering around fresh food and eating together helps us build better relationships,” she says. “Better relationships lead to less conflict, less conflict builds trust, and trust builds healthier communities.”

Farm Discovery at Live Earth

Live Earth Farms uses its nonprofit Farm Discovery program to teach kids as young as five where food comes from, and how our food choices impact our own health and the health of our environment. An array of programs, ranging from summer camps and field trips to special events offer kids fun, interactive activities in farming, art, cooking, wild-crafting, and nature exploration.

Food What logo

FoodWhat?!

Founded in 2007, FoodWhat?! works with Life Earth Farms, UCSC, and Lakeside Organic Gardens to put teens in charge of growing food on dedicated plots of land. The nonprofit—run entirely by graduates of the FoodWhat?! Youth leadership program—empowers high school-age kids to learn about the complex social issues surrounding access to healthy, fresh foods. The teens also learn sustainable farming methods, how to prepare healthy meals with the food they grow, and gain real-world job skills and experience. An added benefit—teens are encouraged to take home the CSA boxes they help pack for distribution so healthy, fresh foods reach their families, too.

Life Lab

Life Lab provides educators and curriculum (as well as teacher training programs) for facilitating “plant-to-plate” learning. Life Lab started its first classroom at Green Acres Elementary in 1979; to date, the nonprofit has established similar gardens at seven local elementary schools in the Pajaro Valley, Live Oak, and Santa Cruz School Districts and makes its curriculum available to schools across the U.S. It’s now working to make its on-site garden classrooms even more accessible to kids throughout the day—and not just during periods of instruction.

Teen Kitchen Project

With commercial kitchens in Soquel and Watsonville, Teen Kitchen Project leads teens in cooking healthy, nourishing meals for local families in need. Adult volunteers deliver the meals the teens help prepare to those suffering from life-threatening illnesses. The teens learn valuable hands-on cooking skills while gaining an appreciation for healthy eating and providing a crucial community service in the process.