A Q&A with Carol Gundersen, executive director of the Food Literacy Project

The Food Literacy Project works with schools and community agencies to educate Louisville’s youth about the story of their food. Located on Field Day Family Farm — an eight-acre vegetable farm in Oxmoor — they use field work experience to put kids in touch with the story of how their food is grown and teach them that highly-processed food isn’t their only option. We spoke with Carol Gundersen, executive director of the Food Literacy Project, about the project as well as their new “Truck Farm.”

LEO: What drew you to this project? Did you grow up around farming or did you come into it later in life?

Carol Gundersen: Well, for better or worse, I’m a lifelong picky eater. And, as a kid, I was not really interested in eating green things at all. My parents would tell you I didn’t eat a single vegetable until I was 10 years old, which I suppose is true. It really wasn’t until I got to college that I really got started on this journey. I got the opportunity to do some volunteer work on a vegetable farm and it was such a rich experience for a full-time student whose work was almost entirely sedentary. It was usually intellectual rather than physical, so it was a really powerful experience to be out in a field, building a greenhouse, picking Swiss chard, planting seedlings, and it all really changed the way I was eating. It made me think much more critically about where my food came from and that I had come from a very agricultural place. Kentucky is rich with agricultural heritage, and that was not a part of my formal education.

LEO: Is that lack of education on the subject of farming the main problem with food literacy and healthy living?

CG: I think that kids and families face a lot of challenges and are under a lot of pressure when choosing their food. And I certainly think that each generation seems to be further and further away from the source of their food and having an understanding of where it comes from and how it is grown. Our food comes from soil, sun, water and air to feed us and there’s a story there that’s worthy of exploration. A lot of kids we work with on the farm don’t even consider the notion that vegetables grow on plants. It’s not something they have even considered, so the problem is real.

LEO: I suppose they know healthy eating is good in an abstract way, but not in a kind of practical, everyday sense?

CG: In our experiences there is a big difference between knowing something as a fact and actually having lived it in some way. A lot of young people understand that eating a ‘balanced diet’ is important, but what that really means is a whole other thing. We really want to change their attitudes and ultimately their behavior when it comes to healthy food. And we found that the most successful way to do that was to emphasize the experience more than the information. So we’re not as interested in, ‘Do they know which one is a turnip and which one is a radish?’ It’s more about, ‘What does it smell like? What does that taste like? Have you ever tasted anything like that before?’ Because we can link that with their experience at home. For instance, we had a kid that smelled oregano in the garden and yelled, “Pizza!” Because that’s the smell he associated with pizza.

LEO: I imagine your own personal experience had a huge impact using that approach. Have you noticed it making a difference in the kids that come to the farm?

CG: Definitely. I’ve been humbled more than once in that regard. For instance, during the summer we shift our program and we hire teenagers to help grow vegetables on the farm. And a few years ago, I remember helping the kids get ready for their first farmers market. We worked hard to grow all this food and we were talking about what our selling points would be for our vegetables, because you won’t necessarily sell a bunch of beats to somebody just because you grew them; you have to offer a recipe card or give them a sample or something. And I was going through all these facts like, ‘They’re rich in vitamins and minerals,’ and all that. And the kids were like, ‘No Ms. Carol, they’re going to buy them because they taste good.’ And, they’re right, kids are not going to eat healthy just because you tell them to. They do it because it tastes good. And if they can decide what goes into a dish, harvest that food themselves and participate in the process then they feel some ownership over it. So, whenever the dish they have decided to create is done, they’re going to eat those vegetables and like them.

LEO: So what kind field work experience do the kids participate in?

CG: We get them involved in all aspects of farming. They help plant the seeds, pull the weeds. Right now garlic is in season so they have been helping harvest that. But we also have things like a worm bin where they can learn about composting and we give them little containers that they can plant seeds in and take back to school or home. One big thing we have is an outdoor kitchen so that we can teach them about cooking all the vegetables they harvest. So kids go harvest something from the garden and use that to prepare their own unique dish. And that creates recipes that they can then take home and share with their families to encourage them to keep eating healthy. We also do a lot of tastings of vegetables fresh out of the field too.

LEO: So I heard you also have a “Truck Farm?”

CG: Yes, our Truck Farm is a mobile learning garden. What we did was basically plant a garden right in the back of a pickup truck, which has allowed us to expand our reach so that we can come out to more schools and community events and spread awareness. Also sometimes it’s easier to bring the experience to the people so they don’t have to come all the way out to the farm.