What Are We Teaching Our Children About Farming?

2017Phoenix.bottle-feedingMy 5-year-old loves Bee Movie. If you missed it, it’s an amusing animated movie whose protagonist is a bee named Barry, narrated by Jerry Seinfeld. It’s designed for kids everywhere to love. But I got so angry watching it that I wanted to throw something at the screen.

Why would such an endearing movie nearly incite me to violence? Because it is one giant missed opportunity to inform our kids about bees, those beloved pollinators that are dying of unknown causes. Not only that, but it actively misinforms kids about bees. A glaring example: in real life, male bees–called drones–do not do any of the work in the hive. They exist solely to mate with Queen bees, which after one single mating flight spend the rest of their lives laying eggs to perpetuate their colony. In Bee Movie, the male bees are the “Pollen Jocks,” who go out and collect pollen and nectar to feed the hive. In real life female worker bees collect all the nectar and care for the hive. How many thousands of kids will grow up believing real hives function as portrayed in Bee Movie? It’s depressing to imagine.

And then there are the children’s books. I have never seen one that depicts anything close to what farming is really like. They are full of adorable animals that are all friends and cuddle together in perfect red barns. OK, so this is probably appropriate for babies and toddlers, who are just learning to identify the different animals and the sounds they make. But what about older children? About half of my kids’ book collection used to include farm books, but I realized recently that we no longer own a single age-appropriate farming book (my kids are 5 and 10). When did we as a society collectively decide that identifying the farm animals and the sounds they make is sufficient knowledge about farming? How do kids who don’t live on a farm ever learn more about the sources of the food they eat?

It’s no wonder there are millions of adults in this country who think chocolate milk comes from brown cows, and a shocking percentage of students think cheese comes from plants and have no idea where eggs come from (more scary survey results like these at https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2017/06/15/seven-percent-of-americans-think-chocolate-milk-comes-from-brown-cows-and-thats-not-even-the-scary-part/?utm_term=.41a5521af934)

The fact is, everyone eats. So while farming may seem like a “special interest group” to some, shouldn’t it be of interest to everyone? Maybe if the “Farm Bill”—that giant piece of legislation that is debated and ultimately passed every 4 years—was called the “Food Bill”, more people would pay attention to it. It determines to a large extent the structure of our food system, and it’s being debated right now and will be passed in 2018.

Why do we collectively value professions like lawyers, computer programmers, and engineers over the people who grow the food that sustains us every day? Perhaps it’s because our food system has become too convenient, allowing eaters to be so far removed from producers. We feel confident that we can walk into a store at any time of the year and find fresh produce, and all manner of brightly packaged food products to quell our hunger.

What if every child—especially in urban areas–was exposed to food production, via accurate movies, books, farm visits, and hands-on experience, from an early age right up through high school? What if the overt and subtle messaging they received from teachers, parents, guidance counselors and others held farming up as a critical societal function? I grew up in rural Madison County, NY, and the very indirect message I received loud and clear was that farming was not a worthwhile profession for anyone with ambition. It took me 20 years to realize how wrong this was, but I hope my kids will understand from the very beginning. If you have children in your life, please encourage their interest in farming. Maybe they won’t grow up to be a farmer, but helping them become informed eaters is one of the most important things you can do for them!

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