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Self-portrait with asparagus,
carrot and grapes

It’s April. Not exactly high time for local foods in western New York. But there we were with my daughter’s kindergarten class at the public market, counting dollars (five each) and loading up on produce for an art project later that afternoon. I’d stumbled across a contest called Be Aware of New York Agriculture, which asks kids up to sixth grade to submit art or writing that reflects certain ag-related themes. For kindy kids, that meant doing a drawing or painting of themselves with the foods they like. (I extrapolated and assumed the contest meant foods they like that don’t come in a box.)

My daughter’s class has been doing a “famous artists” unit this spring, studying various subjects using the life and work of artists including Paul Cezanne, Romare Bearden, Arshile Gorky, Wassily Kandinsky and Jackson Pollock. An art contest seemed a natural fit. And of course the food angle caught my eye. One of the teachers suggested using Frida Kahlo for inspiration (Kahlo painted both portraits and produce). And we were off.

I started by visiting school one day for a little show-and-tell about the sort of food that grows in New York vs. elsewhere. As I mentioned in a post last week, I had visions of doing my own Jamie Oliver-style Q&A, complete with a dramatic reveal and confused kids. But thankfully my 5- and 6-year-olds knew their stuff. (I’d accidentally left the celeriac in the car, but I wouldn’t have been surprised if some of the kids had known what that was, too.) They had a little more trouble figuring out which ones grow in New York vs. warmer climes, but, hey, so do a lot of adults.

We talked about why local foods are a good choice (they’re fresh, they don’t have to use lots of fuel to get here, and they help our neighbors make a living). And where and when we can find them. We ended up with two piles. In one: New York-friendly crops like apples, pears, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, celery, carrots, cucumbers, garlic, greens, parsnips, potatoes, peppers, tomatoes, blueberries and cantaloupe. In the other: tropicals like bananas, citrus fruits, coconut, pineapple, avocado, mango and kiwi. (We’re lucky: A lot of stuff grows in New York.)

Later, the teachers helped the kids draw and write shopping lists, and on another day soon after, we hauled out the wagons and walked to the market.

There’s a bit of irony in a northeastern state hosting a contest to raise awareness of local agriculture before even the asparagus pops. (Though maybe that’s the point? Build anticipation for the season just around the corner?) So our trip to the market was a bit comical. “Yes, tomatoes grow in New York. But not those tomatoes.” And, truth be told, we saw some pitiful produce. “Remember, kids, what I said about veggies being fresher when they don’t travel a really long way? Well, this asparagus here came from Mexico. (Sorry, Frida.) It looks sort of sad, doesn’t it?”

Still, the kids jumped right in and had a great time. And the paintings they did later, featuring themselves and their produce, were really pretty amazing.

Veggie monsters

The contest, which is sponsored by the New York Farm Bureau and New York Agriculture in the Classroom (housed at Cornell University), was supposed to end April 16. But it’s been extended to next Friday, April 23. We turned it into a whole project, but that’s not at all necessary. The guidelines call simply for good old art, poems and stories.

Other states may have similar contests or other classroom opportunities. Check out this national ag literacy directory.

How have your kids’ classes connected with local agriculture?


Disclaimer: The kids didn’t find, buy or paint kale. But “kale” has that alliteration thing going on. And it does grow in New York. So I’m calling it creative license. 


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