As she inches closer to college graduation, my daughter and I were talking about finding her niche today.
“You don’t need to have a niche yet,” I told her. “I am still finding mine.”
“No way,” she texted back. “You found yours.”
She’s right. I did find mine. In fact, I was there this afternoon, kneeling in my muddy niche beside a bunch of four year olds with runny noses and dirty hands.
My niche is otherwise known as the local school garden. It’s where all the things I see as insurmountable challenges in my work and my community–the complexities of family mental health, childhood obesity, food insecurity or malnutrition, children who struggle in school, lacking strong advocates at home– suddenly meet with their solutions, there in the sunshine and the dirt, with the lady bugs, bees, and fish emulsion, the seeds and the seedlings, the order and the chaos, the frustration, the expectation, the hope and the hope and the hope.
Gardening is for the overachievers, the future leader people who want to grow orchids or feed the world. It’s for the underachievers, those who want to toss out some seeds, hang out with their friends, make a mud pie and maybe pick some lettuce in a few weeks for their moms. It’s for everybody in between, the mulchers, the composters, the snap pea snackers. It’s for all my people.
I learned to appreciate gardening as a child by watching my mother, “watching” being the operative word. She planted. She weeded. She watered. She harvested. I watched. She walked in the door, hands full of vegetables, excited to share them with us, and I ate as few as possible. But years later, my love of vegetables grew, perhaps because each bite reminded me of the joy in her face as she hauled in another ridiculously overgrown zucchini. I tell families in my pediatric practice that setting an example for children is more important than expecting immediate results from them. They may not eat a single vegetable on their plates for years, but the experience of sitting down to share food with family plants brain seeds for a lifetime of healthy habits. Our palates are influenced by taste buds and genetics, yes, but also by the faces and the love for those who share meals with us.
Childhood obesity and malnutrition go hand in hand. Busy parents know our growing children need calories, but it’s a challenge these days to find time to prepare meals, sit down and eat them together, and clean up afterwards. So our children slurp their calories in the backseat of the car, from a squeezy container or a spill-proof sippy cup. They bypass chewing, utensils and mess. They bypass sitting down with people they love to enjoy a simple family meal.
Before the children went out to the garden today, the teacher asked who among them had never eaten a salad. Well over half the hands in the class were raised high.
By the end of the class, 100% of the children had eaten a school garden salad, many asking for seconds, with their friends, at a table, with no background TV, using forks and good manners. They made small messes, nibbling on pieces of a peppery radish, discussing which kinds of lettuce or dressing tasted best, then enjoyed some local strawberries for dessert.
It took five minutes to prepare this healthy snack for 20, five minutes to clean it up.
The cost, for 20 with leftovers? About two cents and some time.
If you have not yet found your niche, maybe you can find it in a school garden. Ask a local elementary school near you if you can help tend their garden this summer (or create one if there isn’t one yet). Take home some produce. There will always be more than you can eat yourself. Donate those extra tomatoes, baskets of okra and peppers to Dorothy Day Soup Kitchen, Pilgrim’s Inn, Children’s Attention Home, ROC–or a local food pantry near you.