Kale, kale, the gang's all here

A summer farm camp helps youngsters dig into the fun of growing — and eating — fresh healthy food

Norbert von der Groeben description of photo

Christopher Gardner helps coordinate the partnership that offers a summer farm camp for youngsters in Silicon Valley. The camp teaches the kids about gardening, and encourages them to eat freshly grown produce.

Kale — a form of cabbage high in beta carotene — seemed to be very important to 7-year-old Jane Jones, who gripped the stem of a kale leaf twice the size of her head and waved it high in the air.

It was circle time at Full Circle Farm's Summer Farm Camp in Sunnyvale one morning the last week of June where children ages 5 to 14 got the opportunity to learn about fresh, locally grown produce — where it comes from, how to grow it, how great it tastes.

And how it occasionally even makes a really great toy.

"What did we learn about yesterday?" asked camp counselor Erin Bird.

"Seeds!" the kids yelled.

"And kale!" added Jane, waving her leaf even higher in the air. The group of mini-campers sat in rapt attention on log benches in the middle of an 11-acre farm in the heart of Silicon Valley, not a fast-food restaurant in sight.

"Now, walk over to the picnic tables as if you were chickens," the instructor said, and the clucking began, elbows sticking out and flapping, as the campers waddled past the rows of broccoli and cabbage plants over to the chicken coops.

"Bawk, bawk, bawk," they squawked.

Except Jane who kept on yelling, "Kale, kale, kale."

It's the second summer of what Christopher Gardner, PhD, associate professor of medicine at the Stanford Prevention Research Center, hopes will become a long-term partnership between the School of Medicine and Full Circle Farm to host the camps. This summer, about 80 kids will rotate through. The focus of the camps is to bring kids close to the earth, teach them about gardening and open up their taste buds to the wonders of freshly grown produce. And to do it through fun activities such as food prep, craft projects, music and games. Catching consumers at an early age, that's how to fight the obesity epidemic, say organizers of the camp.

Norbert von der Groeben description of photo

Sean Moser is not afraid to get his hands dirty as he plucks out weeds.

"The challenge is to get kids to eat more healthy," said Gardner, who has helped coordinate the partnership and stops by frequently as a camp advisor. "We're interested in 'stealth nutrition.' Telling kids to eat more vegetables just doesn't work. Making it fun to eat vegetables does."

The partnership grew out of the 2010 Food Summit at Stanford led by Gardner where the Full Circle Farm organizers showed up asking for help to get kids to be more connected to healthful foods.

The nonprofit 11-acre farm produces about 50,000 pounds of fresh produce a year and is dedicated to the renewal of local, sustainable food systems. The summer camp is an extension of this mission.

Since the Food Summit, Stanford has provided student camp counselors who come to teach and do a little science on the side. Gardner hopes to attract more medical students in the future.

"By making kids more connected to the food, like this little girl walking around waving around the kale leaf, they learn about where food comes from, they learn about the environment," said Gardner. "As a nutrition scientist, what I do doesn't necessarily help with this. Research like I've done on how garlic helps or hurts your cholesterol doesn't help. Getting out into the community and changing behavior, that's what works."

Last month's campers aged 5 to 7 were a particularly young group of future consumers, with a notable fascination for the food at snack time. They nibbled around the edges of cucumbers, studied the freshly cut corn, and boasted about their homemade, rolled tortillas.

Norbert von der Groeben description of photo

Abraham Choy, Madelyn Callahan and Jordan Stern get ready to harvest some vegetables.

Pretty much every young camper tried something new at the camp, with jicama becoming a new snack-time favorite. "Yeah, I like farm camp," said Tobias Proulx, 7, nodding his head. "I like to water vegetables. The corn today was very sweet." He'll even occasionally eat some jicama when he has the time. Then he hopped up and down on one foot and ran off to help make the tortillas.

"We hear from parents who say, 'Oh my gosh, all my kid would ever eat was peanut butter!'" said Wolfram Alderson, Full Circle Farm's executive director. "Now they're eating kale, cauliflower, broccoli. The kids bring the produce home, and parents are encouraged to cook with it. What they grow ends up in their dinner salad."

Gustavo Chavez, a 20-year-old human biology student and camp counselor, knows firsthand how excited the kids get about the fresh produce, but he also wants to document the success of the farm so that similar camps can be developed. "When kids can pick it out of the garden themselves, they get excited," he said. He's collaborating with two other Stanford interns to document their work. They hope to publish a paper on how farm camps can encourage good nutrition in kids.

"The scientific question is, will a garden-based education change behavior?" Chavez said. "The goal is to change early childhood behavior. We definitely have a lot of health problems among kids in our society — growing rates of obesity, diabetes. Children don't eat a lot of veggies. We're collecting various data to show how this camp affects behavior."

Money for the camp goes directly back to the farm to help keep it sustainable. Full Circle Farm is also able to give half the kids full scholarships. (The camps run one to two weeks and costs range from $195 to $295.) Information about the camp is available online at http://www.fullcirclesunnyvale.org.


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