Preschoolers run their hands over low growing, lemon creeping thyme, feeling its softness and inhaling its lemony scent. Middle schoolers close their eyes, listening to sounds both near and far of nature and the city around them. High schoolers smell snapdragons, cosmos, flowering dill and marigolds. In every one of these sensory experiences, questions are asked and conversations encouraged. Welcome to Gleaners Food Zoo—a learning garden that is growing curiosity, mindfulness and community, as well as an abundance of vegetables, herbs and flowers.
Run by Heidi Bombrisk, a Gleaners Program Coordinator for Kids Helping Kids, the Food Zoo engages all the senses for optimal learning. “Children learn through play,” says Heidi. “Here you can pull things, be silly, dig in the dirt, run and jump. I always tell the kids, dirt and outdoor voices are welcome here.” All summer long, Heidi and two high school summer interns, Charles Jonesparson and Destiny Thompson, have opened the garden’s gates to a steady stream of suburban and urban kids ranging from preschool to high school. They come as part of organized summer and YMCA youth camps, church groups, teen mentorship programs, as well as with their families. What they all take away from a day in the Food Zoo are lessons that will last a lifetime.
The garden is made up of six food-themed, raised beds. There is the stir fry garden where tomatoes, eggplants, basil and pepperoncini grow. In the soup garden, there are herbs, carrots, onions, cabbages, kale, broccoli, winter squash, garlic and okra. Visitors discover cilantro, hot and mild peppers, sweet corn, tomatillos, and of course, tomatoes and onions growing in the salsa garden. In the lunch box garden, there are lots of crunchy vegetables growing, including carrots, cucumbers and radishes. As Heidi explains, “the garden helps kids connect with nature and learns where food comes from.” Plus, they learn essential farming skills. “We show them how to plant potatoes, prune a bush and tie up tomato plants,” says 17-year-old Charles.
The garden also opens their minds and palates to foods they have perhaps never tasted. One of the activities that’s a hit with all the kids is the walking salad. Each kid picks three vegetables to eat with homemade dressing they had a hand in making. “I have had parents’ jaws drop seeing their kids chomp on beet tops, green onions and green beans,” says Heidi.
Another is the tea tasting run by the interns. In preparation, Charles and Destiny harvest, dry and finally steep lemon balm, mint, pine sage, raspberry leaf and tarragon to make herbal iced teas. The interns lead each tasting, encouraging conversations and the kids vote on their favorite. Mint iced tea is a clear winner, followed by lemon balm. There’s a difference between chewing mint-flavored gum, or eating a bowl of mint chocolate chip ice cream. As 15-year-old Destiny explains, “They’re surprised they can taste these flavors. It opens their eyes to a whole new world.” Beyond discovering new tastes, learning about nature, how to plant, weed and harvest the bounty in this urban paradise, there is a much deeper learning that is at the core of the Food Zoo. “We start the day talking about hunger and food insecurity,” says Heidi. The kids learn that hunger does not discriminate and that there are people from all walks of life, young and old, employed and unemployed, who are hungry. The whole notion of food insecurity seems a bit heady in the midst of butterflies, wild flowers and green bean tipis, but as Heidi says, “Kids need to know.” While talking about Gleaners mission, Charles reflects on his work with the children, “We speak to them like people. We listen and pay attention. This lets them know they have an impact.” Adds Destiny, “We tell them that after the vegetables are fully mature, they’re going to help families.” A day in the Food Zoo provides kids with the pride and knowledge that they can and have made a difference in another person’s life and is a lesson one can only hope will stay with them for a lifetime.