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FROM SOIL TO SUPPER:
TEACHING KIDS WHERE FOOD COMES FROM

Teachers and parents have put together the Wedge of Wellington Pizza Project to teach elementary schoolchildren just what's involved in producing their favourite meal — combining a fun day at the farm with lessons on the art and science of food production.

 

By Wendy Harris

For most of us, there's a simple solution to craving hot, tasty pizza. Pick up the phone, punch in the number, rhyme off your preferred toppings, wait 30 minutes or so (it may be free if it takes longer), give the nice delivery man some money, open the box and dig in. Yum.

That's the fast, urban way to do it. But there's another route to that pizza as thousands of school children in Grades 4, 5 and 6 learned in a Wellington County farmer's field during some sunny days in mid-September.

Forget the phone. This is a much slower, more rural way that starts with creating the basic ingredients — from scratch. You begin by growing the wheat, grinding it, making flour and dough, milking a cow or goat, making cheese, growing tomatoes, green peppers, onions, oregano and some basil, raising animals, slaughtering them, grinding the meat, making pepperoni. Then, and only then, can you finally put the whole thing together and pop it in the oven. For this pizza: two years or it's free!

THE PIZZA PROJECT

Jokes aside, for many kids, visiting the Wedge of Wellington (WOW) Pizza Project was an eye opener to what's really involved in getting their favourite dinner on the table. Thanks to the dedication of June Switzer, a Grade 7 and 8 design and technology teacher at Erin Public School, and a small army of volunteers, the students spent a day exploring the real ingredients of a pizza, and by extension, the agricultural and food processing industries that are the silent partners on all our trips to the grocery store.

"Everyone is so far removed from the farm," says Switzer. "When you ask a child about what they are eating, they have no idea. And neither do their parents…. Even some farm children are familiar only with their own specialty area."

She knows about agriculture first hand. Switzer grew up on a dairy farm, and now, along with her husband, helps to manage a cattle farm. She knows what effort, planning, science and thought goes into the creation of food, and also how it is devalued by a society that takes fresh, abundant, safe food for granted.

"Less than three per cent of the population lives on farms," she says, "and it provides 90 to 95 per cent of all the food we eat in Ontario." Switzer is determined to make sure the rest of us have some awareness of what that three per cent does. Since as a teacher Switzer's milieu for the past 30 years has been the classroom, she has chosen the educational system for her crusade. "There is so much misinformation out there…. It drove me to say 'Let's educate these children.'"

NETWORK OF NEIGHBOURS VOLUNTEER

This widespread ignorance about food inspired agricultural advocate Marg Aitken to join Switzer four years ago to develop the WOW Pizza Project. Since then, their passion and commitment have created a support network from their neighbours across Wellington County as well as from food and agricultural businesses throughout Ontario.

"We wanted to put a new spin on the agricultural field-trip experience by making it more relevant to kids," says Aitken, adding that the experience is also more relevant to Ontario's new curriculum with numerous tie-ins to units in science, technology, health, language arts, visual arts and even math. "Pizza is the perfect food to reinforce the diversity of agriculture in a fun and educational environment."

For its first three years, the Pizza Project was hosted by the University of Guelph Research Centre. This year, it was held in conjunction with the International Plowing Match and Farm Machinery Show.

And while the WOW Pizza Project can only accommodate 2,400 junior school students, the team also developed a full educational line-up with guidelines for self-guided tours and comprehensive curriculum recommendations for every level.

From the outside, WOW looks like a couple of huge party tents, set on green fields just an hour and a half's drive west of Toronto. School buses pull up in a jagged line in a makeshift parking lot. The students are exuberant at finally being released from the bus and eager to start exploring. Once marshalled into orderly groups, the students start with learning about milking or raising cattle or an examination of what DNA is, others start right at the beginning, with a seed in the ground.

"What's the very first thing we need to make a pizza?" asks Beverlie Nelson, a supply high school teacher who is volunteering her time and considerable energy to teach kids about the grains grown in Wellington County. "Before the flour, before the dough, way back at the start of things," she challenges the Grade 4 class in front of her. "Right, it comes from a plant. And to get the plant, we have to have a seed."

MANY USES OF CORN

The children go on to learn about the grain crops grown in the area and about the vast range of products that are produced from them. For many, corn is the real shocker — it finds its way into about a quarter of all grocery store items as well as into an array of other products.

The students move on to another station where they learn how to grind wheat into flour and how yeast ferments and is activated, causing the dough to rise. Another detour leads them to a hands-on experiment involving onions, dish soap, rubbing alcohol, salt and test tubes that shows the children how to separate the DNA from onions. In the process, they learn that DNA is in everything. They also learn some wow facts like the DNA strands in a one-day supply of food for one person would stretch around the world three times.

From Krista Breen, a stay-at-home mom with a degree in agriculture, the students learn about pesticides. Breen asks for a volunteer to get suited up for a day of spraying. Chris Bailey from Alma Public School is handed a white water-proof and chemical-proof suit, rubber boots and gloves, goggles and a respirator, which he puts on to the delight of the rest of his class.

Breen explains that although the pesticides generally in use are extremely safe, often made from organic compounds, the white suit ensures that someone who is exposed to pesticides in aerosol form for an extended period of time "feels as good at the end of the day as he did when he started out."

CHEESE PLEASE

In the next tent, the children learn more about pizza toppings. They are introduced to Marie, a dairy cow, her calf and to several types of goats big and small. The students are shown how to milk an animal, taught about pasteurization and are then taken through the process of making cheese

Next they head into meat production. After a thorough introduction to a Hereford cow named Tragically Hip and her calf, and to a sow and her eight piglets, the children are spared the slaughtering process and move directly to a "butcher shop" where they learn how sausages and pepperoni are made.

Finally, the pupils learn about meat by-products — half the animal is used for meat and 99 per cent of the other half is used as by-products in a huge number of things like chewing gum, piano keys, marshmallows, bone china and dozens more. "The only thing that's not used is the moo," they are told Carolynne Waddell, a Grade 6 teacher at Erin Public School, has a permanent grin on her face as she watches her students gain a direct, hands-on experience of agricultural practices in Ontario. "These kids are surrounded by agriculture here but they're not really aware of it," she says. "I want them to become more aware. I want them to really understand the relationships from soil to supper."

After spending all day learning about Ontario's soil and its products, the children leave with their supper, in the form of a gift bag filled with flour, yeast, tomato sauce, herbs, cheese and pepperoni — all the ingredients they'll need for a home-made pizza. It's not going to be on the table, ready to eat in 30-minutes, but then again, it won't take two years either.

You can learn more about the Wedge of Wellington Pizza Project by contacting June Switzer at jswitzer@sentex.net.

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