Magic Beans by Rebecca Altman
There is a deep connect between food justice and social justice, between farms and food and well-being, and this connection exists on multiple levels.
I'm here to report that we were saved by beans. Pole beans, to be exact. And I'm telling you this now while you still have plenty of time to get some in the ground for yourself. Or for someone-for some place-you love.
After a day and a half of disgruntled toddler stunts, including floor art with markers, a rousing game of toss-the-baby-toys-behind-the-washing-machine, and related foul play, we were spent long before the dinner hour.
And then came the dinner hour.
It just so happened that dinner flopped that night, on account of some overzealous, last-minute additions on my part, which are, in hindsight, never a good idea. My toddler declared the end result "yuck" -a point neither my husband nor I could contest with straight faces.
There we were spent, staring down a sink stuffed with dishes and an unhinged, hungry toddler. A tantrum of epic proportion ensued- a spillover of pent up emotion that seemed, at the time, bottomless.
On a whim, or perhaps out of desperation, my husband offered: "let's go pick the beans Grandpa planted," at which point, my toddler desisted, jammed his feet into his shoes and bolted for the door. His despair evaporated. Just. Like. That.
And did he ever pick beans. A box full. And when I asked whether he'd like to cook them, he gladly followed me inside, averting another wave of crises known as "it's-time-to-go-in-dilemma."
In he marched, bean box cradled to his chest. Up to the counter he climbed. Out came his kid-friendly, plastic knife.
He cleaved and chopped and hacked. Then, into the boiling water went the bean parts.
When they were barely tender, a quick rinse, a dash of pepper and salt, olive oil and vinegar. Down the hatch they disappeared, save for a few samples proudly handed out to all.
* * *
And this is how I came to appreciate all the more the genius of those working to get kids in the garden, like Alice Waters and the Edible Schoolyards she inspired. Or the National Farm to School Network. Or Sharon Lovejoy. Or the Growing Chefs program. Or Bryant Terry and Anna Lappe. The Farm Project. Growing Green. Detroit's Earthworks Urban Farm. Groundwork Somerville. To name but a handful.
This is how I came to appreciate the genius of Grandpa and Grandma, who planted these pole beans for us in the first place.
To appreciate the genius displayed by anyone who has ever broken ground and gotten little hands involved, a movement flourishing now as more people convert fallow land to grow food (see these links for more on the proliferation of community and urban gardening, the Food Not Lawns and Edible Estates projects, the rise of small-scale farmers farming other people's backyards, even the farming of urban rooftops).
Getting kids into the garden surely yields more than teaching them about growing food. Or even knowing food. Or getting kids to fill their bellies with good food.
There's something even more basic at work. Something with a direct line to their emotional and social well-being, though I can't name or measure or quantify it, yet.
Whatever it is, it is potent. And it's not just about people, it's about places, too, and the connections within a community, for food and farms are at the heart of healing places, for example, in the American Rust belt, places left gutted as factories and entire industries pulled out.
See for yourself. The documentary, Urban Roots, examines the urban farms and farmers revitalizing Detroit. Ginger Strand wrote a wonderful piece about the visionary urban farm in Braddock, PA, outside Pittsburgh. Should you be interested in reading more, I'd recommend the book, Food Justice, from the fantastic pairing of Anupama Joshi, Co-Director of the National Farm to School Network and sociologist, Robert Gottlieb.
The common thread is this: there is a deep connect between food justice and social justice, between farms and food and well-being, and this connection exists on multiple levels.
* * *
As for cranky toddlers, I'm left wondering: what else these beans can do?
We tumbled into bed grateful that, of all things, getting to the garden -a small, raised bed- righted what felt wrong to him, gave him a place to dispense and redirect the static that accumulated in him over the course of a busy day. (And that he ate something green).
Just a few hours earlier, at story time, my toddler chose Jon J. Muth's retelling of Stone Soup, where a trio of monks hoodwinked otherwise alienated community members into making vegetable soup together. When we reached the part where everyone contributes to the pot, he announced he'd like to add Grandpa's beans.
And also, poop. At which point, I realized that the magic had run its course.
So, dear readers, if you haven't already, might I suggest that you: grab some kids and some beans and make magic.
An earlier version of this essay appeared on OdeWire.com in May of 2012. To read more of Rebecca Altman's essays, visit http://tothescratch.blogspot.com.