Shel Swanson shares about the birth of All Our Kin’s garden project at Chefs of Our Kitchen event

Last week at a Chefs of Our Kitchen (C.O.O.K.) event, All Our Kin friend Shel Swanson spoke about her motivation for spearheading All Our Kin’s organic garden project. Read her thoughts below:

Shel, on right, with Claire's Corner Copia founder and owner Claire Criscuolo at May 15 C.O.O.K. event

Shel, on right, with Claire’s Corner Copia founder and owner Claire Criscuolo at May 15 C.O.O.K. event

A few years ago I was introduced to a non-profit organization that blew me away.  That was All Our Kin – who trains, supports, and sustains community childcare providers.  Now if you live around New Haven you know there are many amazing non-profit groups:  common ground, music haven, schools, funds to fight cancer and PKD to name a few.  I find there are many more organizations than I can possibly support, but when I learned about All our Kin, I was struck by the idea that we need to start with our youngest people, the tiniest humans, in order to make positive change in the world.

The kind of change I am interested in affecting, is making a shift from our nutritionally empty, overly processed food diet – to a healthier, plant based diet.   It’s the kind of change that impacts our health, our families, our communities, our economy, and the sustainability of our planet.

All Our Kin seemed to have the perfect population for me to work with.

They train and support over 250 parents and educators each year, who in turn serve nearly 1,500 children.  All Our Kin is the only organization in Connecticut—and one of a handful in the country—to address both workforce development and child care simultaneously.

Around the same time I discovered AOK, my youngest daughter invited her preschool class to visit our urban farm.  The preschoolers walked the two blocks to our home where we farm organic vegetables, and keep bees and chickens.  As the children looked at the vegetables, I was surprised to discover that only one or two of them knew what was under the fern-like top of a carrot, or how broccoli grew.  The majority of these children couldn’t identify their food when it was in the ground.

I thought about AOK, and their 1500 children that very year, and wondered if they had access to gardens, if they knew what a carrot looked like in the ground, or if the childcare providers had access to fresh vegetables?  I wondered if having access to fresh, healthy food would make a positive change.

Shel shared photos from the first two All Our Kin organic gardens

Shel shared photos from the first two All Our Kin organic gardens

So last year we decided to give a try.  Two AOK providers were chosen from opposite ends of New Haven.  Each had a sunny patch of ground in their yards.  We built raised beds, brought in healthy soil, and started to plant.  At one provider’s house, the young children were very involved with the planting.  So much so that the bed lacked a single straight row when green things started poking up.  They watered and weeded, and watched as their crops grew.  First came the radishes, which each child tried, a very small crop of strawberries that they had to divide, and then the garden exploded into a jungle of tomatoes and cucumbers, broccoli, spinach and carrots.  The pumpkin grew over the bed, took over the yard, and even entered the neighbors yard.  It provided a bounty of Halloween decorations for the children and the neighbors as well.

At the other site, the provider took on the garden project with as much energy as she approaches life, which is pretty intense.  She not only filled the raised bed with a variety of known and unknown vegetables, but took the extra seedlings of collards, and filled every tub and bucket in her yard to grow these greens from her youth.  She was able to freeze collards for the winter.

Some of the feedback that delighted me was hearing how a child, who had never eaten broccoli before, tried it, liked it, and then brought it home to her family.  Or hearing about the child who walked around the yard eating an entire cucumber.

This spring we are planting our second year of vegetables.  I was moved by the excitement on the children’s faces when we planned what to plant, and looked through the seed packets.  They remembered what they had grown year before, and asked to add things like watermelon, more strawberries and chocolate cake.  Another great teaching moment.

A 25K grant gave us the ability to expand our garden project this year, and right now, there are 13 more child care providers who are raising vegetables for their children, teaching them about healthy food, and making positive change in the lives of over 90 small humans.

We are so grateful for Shel’s commitment to bringing fruits, vegetables, and most importantly, “teachable moments” about nature and nutrition to our communities’ youngest children. To read more about All Our Kin’s organic garden project, click here.

Chefs of Our Kitchen (C.O.O.K.) is a culinary series supporting students at Gateway Community College. To learn more about upcoming C.O.O.K. events, click here

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