In the Veggie Patch: Activist Stephen Bartlett talks food origins, getting kids outside and involved with their food
Stephen Bartlett created the non-profit, Sustainable Agriculture of Louisville (SAL) in 2001, to educate, train, empower and accompany the next generation of farmers in the rebuilding of a just and local food economy in Louisville and its regional foodshed. That grew out of the work he has done for the past 19 years, working for the non-profits Agricultural Missions and Other Worlds, which work with farm laborers globally.
SAL offers a Gardening Day Camp for kids 7 and older, where they learn about gardening and get to participate in the different tasks involved in it, from growing, to harvesting, to prepping and cooking food, all the while working together with kids from different backgrounds, even different languages. Here he talks about one of the activities they participate in, researching the origins of common food items.
Q. Could you take us through a normal day at Garden Camp?
A. In the Gardening Day Camp of Sustainable Ag of Louisville (SAL), children 7-years-old and up get to hear coyote trickster stories with loads of embedded information, get to do different gardening and food processing tasks in a beautiful outdoor greenspace, get to prepare and cook lunch all together, harvesting from the garden, and then get to hike for a swim each afternoon. Counselors and the many assistant counselors (children over 13 who have been in camp a few years) provide a natural structure and flow.
Q. What do you believe the campers get out of this unique experience?
A. They get a sense of summer in the outdoors, with a mixture of structured and unstructured time. Additionally, the campers are different ages and backgrounds, speaking Spanish, French, Arabic, Tchiluba and English. They get to play with their friends, and after a few years, they learn to view a garden ecologically, agronomically and nutritionally.
Q. Could you describe your food map? How did you come up with this idea?
A. For the food map, we have campers do research on the place of origin of various common vegetables, fruits and grains, and we plot these on a home sketched map. Foods come with particular ecological and cultural conditions. Knowing where crops come from helps the campers understand the particular genius of their diverse cultures. For example, here in Louisville, we are growing crops whose origins are globally diverse: watermelon, maize or corn, and peanuts. These three crops come from three different continents, Asia, the Americas, and central South America by way of Africa. Grasping this knowledge is crucial in understanding and valuing each plate of food we take, even each bite.
Q. Why do you think it's important for us to know where our food comes from?
A. It is important to know where our food comes from for many reasons. Are we eating pain and oppression, or are we eating right in harmony of a healthy ecosystem? Are we eating exploitation or decency and uplift? Are we ignorant or conscious?
Q. Which food origin story do you believe to be most interesting and why?
A. Maize, or corn, is of course a crop grown here in the Americas, or Abya Yala as many native peoples call the American continent. Maize was first domesticated by Native Peoples of these Americas about 10,000 years ago, from a plant called teosinte that is basically a short grass with a small seed head. Somehow Native peoples learned to breed the enormous variety of corns that can be grown, radiating a rainbow of colors. This new corn was able to adapt to almost every kind of environment, from high mountains to lowlands. Here in Louisville we have been growing our own heirloom maize for about 20 years now, a cross between Old Hickory and Bloody Butcher, that yields cobs featuring all the colors of the rainbow, which is the new name we chose for our corn: Rhodelia Triple Rainbow.
It survived droughts and many kinds of soil and provides our community enough corn for lots of corn meal and corn bread, and even Tamal and Tortilla festivals. Native religions like the Mayan trace the rise of humanity to the cultivation of maize, by asserting that all humans, or two-leggeds, are the children of maize (no relation to Stephen King’s 1984 thriller “Children of the Corn”). They use the pollen and every part of the plant in ceremonies, and the cooking of maize with lime mineral to yield hominy. The diversity of recipes show a deep intimacy and knowledge of the plant and its nutrition.
I also now revere the maize plant and feel responsible to continue to grow out our Triple Rainbow corn and act as its guardian and protector. Ask one of the kids who have attended our camp how good the fresh maize flour tastes in our own Caribbean style corn bread.
I think the origin and development through selection and mystical ceremony of maize in the Americas has got to be one of the most important stories of all times, equivalent in real and metaphorical power to the Biblical stories around wheat and grapes. That the indigenous of the Americas learned to transform a quite ordinary grass into a veritable staff of life for hundreds of cultures across a continent, by cooking the corn with lime mineral to dramatically increase its nutritional value and thereby rendering the corn into the glories of tortillas, tamales, atole (fermented corn porridge), and alcoholic drinks like pulque has got to be one of the greatest stories in human history. That miracle was the basis for the growth of agriculture and the sustenance of civilizations across the globe. Corn is now arguably the most important agricultural crop on the planet. What many are now interested in, myself included, is restoring the cultivation of maize to its origins, including the reverence and ceremony that brings us this staff of life, for us who are becoming truly "Americanos", or "de las Americas." Los hijos y las hijas del maiz.