Foodwise Kids Brings the Joy of the Farmers Market to Students During the Pandemic

Text by Abigail Pak and photos by Kenzie Westergard, CUESA Interns
August 5, 2021

Market tents click into place, the smell of strawberries wafts out of baskets, pea pods tumble out of their crates. In the distance, a line of tiny skipping feet approaches in a bubbly cloud of excitement. If you told me two months ago that I would be teaching children, I would have laughed.

But working with kids is no laughing matter, especially if you’re trying to get them to eat tomatoes, cucumbers, and—with Herculean effort—broccolini. Yet as a CUESA intern this summer, I worked with the CUESA team to relaunch their Foodwise Kids program to help kids learn about fruits and vegetables at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market.

Staying Rooted Through Uncertainty 

“A key part of CUESA’s mission is to connect city dwellers with urban farmers, and through that, to learn the importance of sustainable agriculture and knowing where your food comes from,” shares Education Manager Tiffany Chung (pictured above). “Foodwise Kids, our program that helps expose youth to this knowledge at a young age, helps us connect those of us who live in the city to the farms that feed us.”

Getting its start in 2012, Foodwise Kids is a free field trip program that nurtures in kids a love and excitement for fresh produce and an awareness of concepts like seasonality and sustainability. With the help of experiential learning at the farmers market, elementary school students learn that they have a role in food systems, and a say in the good they can do for their bodies and communities. Through Foodwise Kids, CUESA welcomes nearly 2,500 students to the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market each year.

But when classrooms went virtual in response to the COVID pandemic, a lot changed for Foodwise Kids. Previously, students could come to the market to explore, taste produce, and even cook a meal with their classmates. With students unable to come to the market classroom in person, CUESA decided the market would come to them.

“Empowering and connecting kids with healthy food is core to our work at CUESA,” says Christine Farren, Executive Director. “When schools closed last year, we started working with San Francisco Unified School District administrators and teachers to bring the joys and discovery of farmers markets to students even while they were at home. The pandemic moment required us to think creatively about what we could do—not what we couldn’t do—to meet the needs of kids safely.” 

A Virtual Farmers Market Classroom

Last spring, Foodwise Kids underwent a distance-learning adaptation that fruited six educational videos on topics such as “What’s cool about the farmers market?”, “Where does food come from?” and “Do fruits and vegetables have superpowers?” By working with SFUSD teachers to distribute these videos to students, CUESA was able to take kids and families virtually to the farmers market and local farms to meet the farmers and learn about important work they do.

In addition to these videos, CUESA provided synchronous virtual classes over Zoom. Sessions were offered to classes with 70%+ students on free and reduced lunch, and for teachers who expressed interest, CUESA delivered fresh produce beforehand. Students were able to learn about the farmers market, play a fruit and vegetable identification game, practice open-minded sensory tasting while trying unfamiliar foods, and share their experiences with classmates. 

Last spring, CUESA hosted 41 SFUSD elementary school classes with a total of 880 students at 16 different schools, and delivered produce to 22 different classes at 12 different schools.

First-grade teacher Hazel Mung of Gordon J. Lau Elementary responded, “I loved the videos—it was well done, engaging, and informative!” Another teacher, Tina Lau, added, “I especially liked how we ended the program with the tasting and then used our senses to describe. The visuals and word bank were very helpful for my English learners [and] my students enjoyed the guessing game.”

Tiffany reflects, “I love that distance learning made us really think about the most important concepts we wanted students to take away from our program. Students were able to get a glimpse of the local food system that they live in, which many aren’t even aware of in the first place.”

Summer Camps Return to the Market

After the school year ended, Foodwise Kids shifted again, and this time, I was pulled along for the ride. This summer, we had our first in-person sessions where masked summer campers were able to come to the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market for field trips again. For those unable to make the trip, we went to them.

In the outdoor CUESA Kitchen, colorful tablecloths were set, dull knives pulled out, and groups exploded with chatter as peach juice dripped down fingers and basil leaves were ripped from stems. As an introvert, helping to facilitate classes was my worst nightmare, but as an educator, it was beautiful. During these sessions, I saw kids who claimed to “hate cucumbers” ask for seconds, and youth, who once “yucked” at a carrot, take the slices from my hand. 

I saw how transformational these classes can be. Aaliyah, a camper at Love Elementary said that she could “eat this stuff all day! Every day!”

At the in-market field trips, groups of kids are given $8 in market coins to do their own shopping together. Anna, a Foodwise Kids volunteer, handed me her group’s produce bag and asked me if I could be “careful distributing their radishes. They’re very attached to their radishes.” 

Fresh Flavor Horizons for Young Palates

YMCA summer camp counselor Natalie watched kids munch on pluots and commented, “This is important because we all come from different backgrounds. Some of these kids, they don’t know this exists. They come and see, ‘Oh, I don’t have to eat Hot Cheetos for breakfast.’ They open their horizons to all that’s out there.” 

Little Julissa held up a candy-striped fig and yelled, “It tastes good! It tastes like candy.” True chimed in, “We had so much fun eating raspberries!”

With the SFUSD school year starting soon, Foodwise Kids plans to resume field trips to the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, as well as deliver classroom cooking lessons and Foodwise Families cook nights to participating classes. But it takes a village to make these programs happen. 

For farmers, nurturing kids’ love of fresh fruits and vegetables is vital. “I approach everything on the farm like a mom in the kitchen,” says Lorraine Walker, owner of Eatwell Farm. “And teaching kids is so important. They’re the ones who are going to create change, who go home and talk to parents, like, ‘Actually, I like the kale.’ You can take a kid to a field and give them red chard, orange chard, and they’ll eat it! Raw! If you build a place, they will come.”

Through my summer supporting Foodwise Kids, I learned that teaching kids is hard, it’s chaotic, and it’s messy. But it’s crucial and—take it from a “not a kid” person—it’s rewarding. The pandemic made us all shift, think differently, and see each other with new eyes. Through it all, CUESA educators will be here, starting the mornings with a passion for food, education, and a basket of strawberries at the ready.

Help CUESA bring back experiential food education for kids this fall! Donate now to our Back to School, Back to the Farmers Market campaign.

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