Kids Meet Natural Foods

Minnesota Co-ops Partner for Classroom Education

What do you remember from your time in elementary school? Your favorite teacher? Games on the playground? When you pull up your favorite images, perhaps you have my experience: I remember the special events. When I was a second grader, I saw the sixth grade production of “A Fiddler on the Roof,” and I remember it as a production bound for Broadway. Another occasion was a fall field trip to the Drumlin Farm, a small place in the forest with a bit of living history. The smell and feel of the leaves in those woods are clear and crisp in my memory.

The culture of our educational institutions these days tell us that the daily basics of reading and math are the grand purpose of learning in the early grades. There is certainly truth to that. Most of us first learned to read and write in those early years, and we have found much use for those skills. Yet the special moments of experiential learning that our teachers gave us also left lasting impressions. It could well be that they shaped us more than those daily spelling worksheets.

In fact, children of all ages yearn for learning experiences, especially ones that pertain to their everyday lives. It is a perfect opportunity for us, as owners and leaders of natural food co-ops, to make a difference. If we can bring interactive experiences with healthful foods into the classroom, if we can lead field trips to nearby organic farms, we likely will provide memories and inspiration that will last a lifetime.

Slow down, you say: co-ops are businesses that market and sell natural foods. They do not have the time, resources, or expertise to teach in elementary schools.

This may be an appropriate response. But consider what your co-op does have to offer:

  • a membership that subscribes to seven co-op principles, two of which are “education, training, and information” and “concern for the community”
  • smart employees and members with a great variety of skills, among them teaching and working with young children
  • a great selection of healthful products, ready for use in a classroom.
  • connections to local organic growers
  • a philosophy of healthy eating that is grounded in whole foods and is not prescriptive, but rather full of ideas
  • desire and ability to work with other cooperatives
  • owners who, while demanding a solid business, look beyond the bottom line when defining success.

The story of our organization in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota revolves around this blend of attributes unique to co-ops. In 1992 two co-op managers, Dan Foley of the Wedge in Minneapolis and Mary Courteau of Mississippi Market, decided to create an outreach and education program for elementary schools. They hired me on a part-time basis to create and implement this program. I was a young licensed teacher with a job in the public schools. My experiences in natural foods included four years on the board of another co-op, volunteer work with an advocacy group for sustainable farming, and paid work stocking bulk and groceries.

I developed several sets of seasonal lessons that I taught in schools in Minneapolis and St. Paul. The response was overwhelming--once in a school, I was invited back, and new schools were always on the line. Within a year I had more requests than I could take and have kept a waiting list ever since.

Several years later, we were able to secure additional funds to increase our teaching capacity, and I was hired as a full-time program director. While both co-ops had more money available for outreach, we also signed a contract with a school district, received a grant from the state of Minnesota, and involved a third co-op in the area, Lakewinds Natural Foods. Lakewinds at first paid the program a daily rate for my lessons in its area and later became a full sponsor. In the mid-1990s we also restructured the program into its own nonprofit organization with an independent board. We called it the Midwest Food Connection.

The success continues: as of January 2004, five co-ops have become involved. Linden Hills Co-op in Minneapolis joined as a full sponsor two years ago, Seward Co-op, also in Minneapolis, is joining, and Mississippi Market, which for several years did not have resources to fund the program, is coming back as a supporter. The increased funding will allow us to hire a second teacher for the program.

The kids loved it when Uli came in and challenged them with math and healthful food choices. After studying the labels of a wide variety of food items, my students were given a $10 budget to buy healthy groceries for one day. Lively discussions ensued as students compared dried apricots and breakfast cereal, debated how to buy rice and vegetables and still have money for their favorite chips, and competed to get as close to $10 without going over.

Initially teachers invited me to be a special visitor to their classroom because they were curious and believed that their students needed instruction in nutrition and healthy eating. Now I am invited because the teachers know that their students will have important and memorable experiences. I bring fresh produce from the stores, I execute a precise lesson plan built around clear objectives, and I involve the students with song, role playing, storytelling, touching food, and of course eating. Instructional time with the whole class is followed by individual work reinforcing the objectives of the day. I expect students to behave and participate, and they do, because they learn right away that it will be worth their time.

A year later, when I come back, they then remember what we did--the radish they tasted, the hand mill they turned, the earthworm casting they spread on their farm drawing. In some cases I see the students two or more years later, and they still show astounding recall. As I teach them from year to year, these experiences gather strength, reinforce each other, and form memories, patterns, and even habits that will determine food choices for years to come.

Over the years our program has kept close to several guiding objectives:

  • provide children with opportunities to study and taste natural and organic foods
  • create an understanding in children of the origins and traditions of regionally produced foods.
  • teach children about the methods and benefits of sustainable agriculture.

We continue to teach only in elementary schools and to focus our classroom visits in the geographic areas around our supporting co-ops. Other ideas have constantly tugged at our shirtsleeves: visiting high schools, teaching about the economic concept of cooperatives, driving farther to be in classrooms in other parts of the state. But we have, for the most part, resisted the temptation to do everything.

The only other activities that have always been part of our program are field trips from schools to local organic farms. These get extremely good reviews from all involved and beautifully complement our classroom objectives. On these trips children get as close to the work on a farm as possible by studying the soil, harvesting vegetables, even pulling up old irrigation hose!

Will the children we teach all become co-op shoppers? Surely not! But the ones that already visit co-ops with their families get valuable enforcement at school, while the others gain experiences that will change their attitudes towards food forever. If you had made fresh pasta dough in fourth grade, or pulled up dozens of huge fresh turnips on a warm fall day on the farm, you would probably remember it too!

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