Cornmeal at Lee School

Our local chapter of Slow Food does a lot of neat things, especially their partnership with Lee Elementary School in Columbia. Along with arranging farm field trips and building garden beds with the school, they arrange monthly sessions between farmers and urban kids:

Our “harvest-of-the-month” sessions have introduced the children to a locally raised or crafted food each month. Not only do these sessions enlighten and delight the children, but they strengthen the connection between local farmers and the community. Slow Food Katy Trail pays local farmers to bring their tomatoes, sweet potatoes, popcorn, honey, eggs, wheat, cheese and so forth to the school every month. The farmers discuss life on the farm with the children and how they grow or produce their products. The children study the various foods in different areas of the curricula such as history, art and science.

Last Friday, it was our turn to take part at Slow Food’s invitation. This wasn’t the first time we had worked with the group (we hosted an on-farm dinner last fall) but it was our first time taking part in the Lee School program. It can be hard coordinating farms and schools, as their schedules are so opposed. The peak of most farm activity, at least with relation to fruits and vegetables, is when schools are out. So we all agreed that featuring our heirloom dent corn and cornbread would be something new for the kids, and easily done in the middle of winter.

We had two 40-minute sessions with two classes, and divided the time between ourselves and several Slow Food volunteers. One class spent a period talking with us about how we manage the farm and the fascinating biology of corn and its pests. Meanwhile, the other class worked with volunteers and teachers to make fresh cornbread from our recipe, baking and eating it in one session. Then we switched, and did it again.

It sounds like the baking went great, and the kids certainly liked their cornbread. Meanwhile, we had a blast showing photos and fielding lots of questions from inquisitive 3rd graders. We made the “mistake” of including a photo of a raccoon, to prompt discussion of how we manage pests and other things that like to eat corn, and the kids just latched onto the coon problem. Every few minutes through the rest of the time, another hand would pop up with a new suggestion for how to handle the coons and keep them out of the corn. It was the kind of basic problem-solving that’s really good for kids to engage in.

Overall, we covered how we prepare the soil, plant the corn, protect it from weeds and predators, how it’s pollinated, and how we harvest and use it. Many of the kids had never seen or heard of corn other than sweet corn or popcorn, and were dazzled by the array of colors, sizes, and shapes we brought to show. My favorite quote, after we displayed some ears of popcorn: “Wow, I never thought to look in the bag before it popped!”. Many got a chance to turn the hand-grinder, and they all saw how corn goes from a kernel to a plant back to a kernel and then directly into food. We had some good discussions about topics like using manure to fertilize plants (“But doesn’t that mean that when you’re eating corn, you’re, like, eating poop?”) and how plants need and use different resources than people.

These are the kinds of connections we all need to make with our food and its sources, and I think everyone involved had a great and worthwhile time. I would have loved to be a fly on the wall of all the homes that night, to hear what the kids told their parents that night. All in all, a great and worthwhile time. We’re grateful to Slow Food Katy Trail for arranging programs like this, and for all the people who take part in their fundraisers like the Sycamore Whole Hog Dinner to make these programs possible and to be able to pay farmers for their products. We’re looking forward to our next chance to do this.

3 thoughts on “Cornmeal at Lee School

  1. I don't know a lot about the overal setup of schools in Columbia, as we don't have kids and aren't in the Columbia district, but I get the impression that Lee School is set up as a somewhat non-traditional arts-focused format, which would allow more freedom to engage in such activities. Other local readers can confirm or correct this.In any case, I think it would be much harder to coordinate such a program over all schools, at least without a lot more funding from sources other than a local non-profit. But that's a question for Slow Food, who runs the program. We were just invited participants the one time.

  2. Eric, you're correct on all counts. Each school has different Partners in Education who set up their partnership activities to match their schools. Lee School is a magnet school for arts. No one local business/organization is (or could be) spread out over the entire district. The focus on one school allows for a deeper relationship between the school and the business/organization.