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A Soil App Aims to Get Kids Deep into Dirt

Seven years ago, in the first season of his television show Food Revolution, chef Jamie Oliver visited an elementary school classroom in West Virginia to gauge first-graders’ familiarity with fresh, healthy food. What he discovered was troubling. While all the children were well-acquainted with ketchup, not one could identify a fresh tomato, nor could they name other common vegetables such as cauliflower, beets, and eggplant. In the show’s second season, Oliver found that high-school seniors were often just as confused: One seventeen-year-old student believed honey was produced by bears and while another thought cheese came from pasta.

Oliver’s on-air quizzes were purely anecdotal, of course, and surveys attempting to quantify American children’s food literacy are scant. But a British study released in June found significant food confusion among children in that country, and it’s unlikely that children in the U.S. know any more considering the fact that 7 percent of Americans actually believe that chocolate milk comes from brown cows.

Most kids today are at least a generation removed from the farm. Whereas 100 years ago, around one third of Americans farmed, only 2 percent of the American population still works in agriculture, with 72 percent of surveyed adults now admitting they know “nothing or very little” about farming. Our diet, too, reflects this agricultural disconnect, with almost 60 percent of Americans’ daily calories coming from ultra-processed foods sold in supermarkets and restaurants.

One group working to address this growing literacy gap is the Center for Ecoliteracy. The Berkeley-based organization has been working with schools for the last two decades to teach sustainability and help kids get familiar with the basics of where their food comes from and how it gets to their table.

In collaboration with the Whole Kids Foundation, the organization has just released a new, free tablet app called Starting with Soil, designed to use colorful, interactive experiences to teach kids about our food system’s most fundamental building block, including how soil is formed, the roles animals and people play in keeping it healthy and fertile, and the basics of seeds, pollinators, and organic farming practices.

Civil Eats spoke recently with Zenobia Barlow, the organization’s co-founder and executive director, about the genesis of the Starting with Soil app and what the organization hopes it will accomplish:

What inspired you to create Starting With Soil? And why did you choose to focus on soil?

We asked ourselves, “What is the thing we would most like young learners to experience and understand?” We chose soil because it contains most of the life on earth, and is literally the foundation for everything we eat, and everything that supports our lives and the lives of the beings around us. Our hope is that the app instills in children enthusiasm and curiosity about the world around them, and a profound sense of understanding about their role as part of this larger, vibrant world. It provides a real opportunity for families to learn and garden together, too.

But is “soil” too esoteric...

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