In the fall, we walk into the classroom with a tall cornstalk in tow. The next week we hide root vegetables around the room for students to discover in an imaginary root cellar. In the winter, we paste beans to a map of the world and look at potatoes full of eyes. As the growing season begins in the spring, we schlep buckets of soil into the classroom to start seedlings that students tend before bringing home. As our mission states, “Midwest Food Connection brings educational adventures in food, cooking, and gardening to children and their families.” This is what we do. The question is why? How does a small non-profit of four traveling food teachers make a big impact? And why does food education matter?


We have a serious health problem in this country. One in five school-aged children is obese; a percentage that has more than tripled since the 1970s. Perhaps the most obvious reason for our work is to encourage healthy eating behavior in children. When it comes to impacting our health, we have the most say over the food we choose to eat. This is particularly true for children who have limited say over their lifestyles, but might make choices at the dinner table. Our job is to provide the knowledge, positive experiences, and tools to empower them to make healthy decisions. By bringing real food into the classroom, sharing stories, cooking together, and tasting delicious recipes, we encourage trying new foods in a fun and approachable way. As one classroom teacher said about our program, “You don’t say, ‘You have to eat your broccoli or you’re not going to grow!” Instead, we create an engaging, sensory experience and give room for children to grow into a positive relationship with healthy foods. We emphasize that their taste buds are always developing, so it’s okay if they don’t like it yet. This growth mindset allows for the gradual development of good eating habits.


To understand a food is to understand where it comes from, how it grows, and what it looks like in nature. Through our lesson content and our co-op partnerships, MFC directly and indirectly motivates environmentally-conscious behavior. In our early fall curriculum, for example, we teach a lesson called “Eat Local” which explores the many reasons for eating local foods. Students brainstorm these reasons and discuss the benefits of decreasing fossil fuel emissions, supporting local economies, and eating seasonally to care for the land. By bringing locally-grown produce from the co-op into the classroom, we connect children to the food that grows only miles away. Our students are inspired to choose the foods they learn about in our lessons. In response, some families decide to purchase these local foods and start to plug into the local food system. We move the needle on the demand for local foods, fruits and vegetables, and sustainable agriculture. Our work in this area is only deepening, as we roll out a new series of lessons entitled “Climate Conscious Cuisine.” This series exposes students to seaweed’s powerful role in cleaning water, organic farmer’s ability to work with nature when solving challenges, creative ways to conserve food, and local MN foods of long ago.


By learning about and plugging into a local food system, MFC students become connected to the greater MN community. Whether tasting a Honeycrisp apple in class, going to the co-op with their families, seeing pictures of local farmers, visiting farms around the Twin Cities during our field trips, or starting to grow food in their own neighborhoods, young people connect the dots of the food system. As one of our educators remarked, we bring the “human aspect” to food. We say, “think about the farmer who grew the food that you’re about to taste.” When kids learn about the support we give to farmers in our state or the sustainability of our collective actions, they begin to uphold one of the seven national co-op principles; concern for community.


When examining the reason for this work, we cannot forget the basic skills that children are learning during our lessons. Given the hands-on nature of our teaching, students help us measure and pour, grind spices and cut vegetables, seed plants and water seedlings. As they prepare simple recipes or care for a seedling, they learn to cook for themselves and to grow food on their own. As a classroom teacher remarked, “It’s a topic that comes up – food is a part of our everyday. It’s something basic that we should know. Everyone sits down to dinner together.” These are life skills that everyone needs to learn in order to feed themselves healthy meals.


Food lies at the intersection of health, environment, community, and culture. By taking a holistic approach to food education, we broaden the world view and historical view of children’s thinking. As our winter series “Gifts of Many Cultures” expresses in each lesson, many of the fruits, vegetables, and dishes that we enjoy eating in the US have been brought here by immigrants and refugees. We explore the history of the potato in Ireland, the soybean in China, and millet in Western Africa. We learn about the Native farming practice of growing the “three sisters” of corn, squash, and beans together. “We’re not only increasing children’s exposure to more healthy food,” executive director Uli Koester explains, “we’re also showing them how to be sensitive to other cultures and be aware of where our food is coming from.” For a young generation that is growing up in an increasingly multicultural world, we celebrate foods from many cultures and in so doing, validate them. As Uli reflected, “We’re not always just giving new choices, but we’re also validating the choices some students have already made.” Whether trying the Indian dish of dhal or biting into a Mejdool date, MFC students from kindergarten through 5th grade have learned to hold up multiculturalism as a gift.

As a nonprofit with strong connections to five local co-ops, we offer food education to children of all backgrounds, learning abilities, and experiences with healthy eating. We empower young people to care for themselves, for the land, and for each other. This is why we do this work.