Children in Chicago, especially those living in poor neighborhoods, are more likely to be overweight than children elsewhere in Illinois and across the nation, according to research compiled by the Consortium to Lower Obesity in Chicago Children, a prevention program based at Children’s Memorial Hospital. Fresh from the Farm teaches children in CPS schools about the importance of good nutrition—an essential component in preventing obesity—as well as where and how fresh fruits and vegetables are grown. The program is an offshoot of the nonprofit organization Seven Generations Ahead, founded by Gary Cuneen in 2001 to help communities incorporate green, sustainable practices into their day-to-day lives. The organization spreads the word by speaking to teachers and principals about the program, and has begun training teachers in its curriculum. Cuneen spoke with writer Elizabeth Blass about the program’s successes and challenges.
Q: When and how did Fresh from the Farm start?
A: Seven Generations Ahead started doing pilot work in Oak Park and Chicago schools in 2004. Some of that was centered around education, implementing curriculum on healthy eating and locally grown food. We encouraged school gardens, took kids to local organic farms and brought farmers into the classroom to talk to kids about what they grow, what it’s like to be a farmer and how they grow their food. In Chicago, we began to work mostly in schools in West Town, Pilsen, Little Village and Logan Square.
Q: Why did you bring this program to Chicago, in particular?
A: It really flowed from our broader mission to help build sustainable communities. Promoting local, family-raised food and caring for the health of children were objectives that were part of [that] mission. We saw an opportunity, given that there wasn’t much happening in this arena. There wasn’t a program like ours.
Q: How much did the students you’ve worked with know about healthy eating when you first started?
A: There was some level [of knowledge] but it wasn’t great. We discovered that by talking about healthy eating and particularly focusing on fresh fruits and vegetables, it definitely increased their knowledge. The idea of [teaching about] local farms was not on anybody’s radar, but having farmers come into the classroom and talk about these things also increased the kids’ awareness and knowledge.
Q: What is the economic makeup of the schools you serve?
A: All of our Chicago programs serve schools that are 90 percent low-income. Uplift Community School is predominantly African American. Some of the others are predominantly Latino. Healthy eating and connecting to the land are things that all kids should learn about, regardless of their income.
Q: What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced?
A: When you’re working with the younger kids, quite honestly, we see open arms and fascination. Even if they don’t like the particular food, they are excited by the process [of growing food] and when they go out to the farms or are engaged in the gardens, there’s just a lot of joy. But how you then translate that into what’s going on at home, and what’s getting served in the school lunch program, are issues that we and other organizations are working on. Those are the hardest pieces. Illinois is not flush with farmers who are growing fresh fruits and vegetables for consumption at the institutional level.
Q: How successful has Fresh from the Farm been?
A: Occidental College [in Los Angeles] did a study, and the findings demonstrated that both student and parent knowledge, attitudes and behaviors all shifted significantly because of our program, including some very tangible increases in the consumption of fruits and vegetables. Through surveys and focused conversations with teachers and parents, we just get great feedback. The kids love the program– they write these darling letters to our staff – and the teachers continue to want the program to come back
Q: What are your long-term goals?
A: We’d love to see these types of programs get into as many schools in the metro area as possible. Teaching kids about where their food is raised, how it’s grown and how it relates to the health of their bodies is really important. Kids also relate very specifically to themes that we’re all concerned about: academic achievement, general healthiness. My hope would be that we get programs like Fresh for the Farm into the schools and get more kids getting their hands dirty in the soil, learning about healthy eating and tasting healthy foods.