lettuce destruction.jpg
Harley Soltes
Shall I eat you? Or destroy you?
Ballard resident Joshua McNichols is an architect turned journalist that embodies the grow-everything-you-eat movement. A regular


Urban Farmer Joshua McNichols Can Get Kids to Eat Their Vegetables

lettuce destruction.jpg
Harley Soltes
Shall I eat you? Or destroy you?
Ballard resident Joshua McNichols is an architect turned journalist that embodies the grow-everything-you-eat movement. A regular public radio contributor, he's co-written The Urban Farm Handbook. The recently released title explains everything from grinding grain to finding local butchers ready to slaughter your whole cow and pig. The father of two, he knows more than a few tricks to get kids into growing and eating real food, too. Like good, old-fashioned bribery.

How do you think urban farming will look in ten years? Will the trend stick and settle into a long-term lifestyle, or is it in danger of dissipating?

There will always be acolytes of urban farming, even if those people represent only a niche movement. Understanding how food is grown will always be important to those who care about cooking, and many such people live in cities. There have been spikes of interest, but when observed over decades, interest in fresh, local food has grown steadily since Alice Waters first popularized it, to the point that you can now buy organic produce at Wal-Mart. Even if the wave of interest in urban farming recedes as the economy recovers, I believe this generation has experienced a connection to food it cannot forget, just as my grandfather knew the value of a dollar, having lived through the Great Depression.

Getting children to actually eat notoriously kid-repellent produce like leafy greens is tricky. How do you encourage kids to take more than one bite of spinach or kale?

Bribery. There's not shame in bribery. I pay my kids to harvest lettuce (a few nickels - my kids are still young enough to appreciate a few coins). Just getting their hands on lettuce helps them become familiar with the vegetable, so it's not so foreign when they encounter it on the plate. I offer my three-year-old the privilege of helping me prepare the evening's vegetables because she'll eat anything on the cutting board, but gets much more picky at the dinner table itself. I offer her thin strips of carrot to dice with a butter knife.

My kids earn a single Lego piece from a larger set for every serving of vegetables they eat and for every new dish they try. A new vegetable meets two of these criteria, and so is worth two Legos. We tally what they earn on a chart and "cash them in" every week or two. I don't force them to eat vegetables. I allow condiments and other things that make the vegetables more "palatable" for them. This gives them some control. For example, they can sandwich their 12-leaf serving of baby lettuce greens in between two slices of cheese. Salad dressing, peanut butter, whatever it takes. A little sugar in the cabbage salad. Also, I make sure to extend the Lego reward system to vegetables they love - like tomatoes and shelling peas. On nights when I offer these things, they'll gorge themselves on tomatoes and earn four or five Lego pieces. That helps keep them excited about the reward system on nights when they're less enthusiastic about the vegetable I've offered.

How do you define urban farming?

Urban farming is about gardening on a production level in the city, getting serious and efficient about producing food despite the fact that everyone tells you it's not possible in the city, because city land is too dear, or that it's more efficient to give up farming to rural farmers. Urban farming is about refusing to give up on the dream of having that strong connection to food.

There are actually two meanings to the title of our book, The Urban Farm Handbook. On the one hand, the title refers to urban farms--efficient little gardens where we produce a chunk of our own food--as described in the paragraph above. On the other hand, this book is a handbook about connecting urban people with farms and farmers.

There are a lot of books about growing food out there. What's your niche?

Our book is the only book in this genre that keeps people up all night reading. But to answer your question seriously, gardening is just a small piece of the complete strategy we describe in the book. We source local heirloom grains directly from the farmer, buying in bulk and grinding into flour at home. We buy live cows and hogs from trusted farmers and have them slaughtered at a custom butcher, then fill our freezers with this high quality meat bought at a fraction of the price you'd pay at the grocery store. These strategies take us far beyond the urban garden. This book presents a much bigger vision than your average gardening book.

Did you garden as a kid?

No. I was raised on a property with lots of unkempt fruit trees, though, and used to sit up in those trees and eat fruit after school. I learned everything I know in P-Patches beginning in the mid 1990s.

Most parents will tell you that kids are notorious for going a little nutty just before dinner. Can a backyard garden be a place to funnel some of that energy?

Absolutely. While my co-author Annette Cottrell produces most of her own food in her garden, I treat mine more as a place for kids to explore food. In the summer, if my kids whine before dinner, I tell them they can snack on anything they can find in the backyard. They usually choose strawberries, shelling peas, blueberries, huckleberries, tomatoes, apples, plums, raspberries, or cherries. I don't worry about them spoiling their appetites because when they have to pick something themselves, they eat relatively slowly. While they're outside grazing, I put the finishing touches on dinner.

When we ripped out our lawn, I worried about my kids not having a place to run around anymore. Today, I'm happy we made the choice. Now we rely on our neighborhood park for open space. Our kids bicycle up and down the public sidewalk. You can't kick a ball in our backyard anymore, as it's been converted to garden. That backyard is now densely packed with nutritious snacks and provides the kids with hours of entertainment. Our property has become less about physical exercise and more about exploration: exploration of foods and digging and small creatures.

As long as we have public spaces to really stretch our legs, I feel this exchange has been worthwhile. We've kept a little concrete in the driveway for the kids. There are tender plants to either side, so as our kids get older, we'll encourage sports that work in confined spaces, like hacky sack. I plan to invent my own racket sport that works in our tiny driveway. This is how pickleball evolved. In response to confinement, a new sport emerged.

Getting kids to help plop seeds in the ground or turn compost sounds easy enough. Or is it?

My kids have no interest in turning compost. I enjoy it though, as it's good physical exercise. Like chopping wood. Good clean fun. As for seeds, my daughter is very interested, and helps me regularly. Obviously, it's less efficient with her involved. But I tend to think of gardening time as one-on-one time with her. She loves to be part of the process. When she's involved I achieve maybe one tenth of what I could achieve on my own. But as I'm thinking of it as "family time," I don't mind this inefficiency and welcome the time we spend together in the garden. I do need to spend some time gardening on my own though, just to get things done.

Do any veggies or fruits prove to be universally appealing to the kid palate?

Every kid is different and their tastes will vary wildly from day to day. Generally, fruit is a big hit. Blueberries are easy to grow here and have the advantage of being attractive to and safe for toddlers. I used to set my toddler in the blueberry patch and could get in 30 minutes of gardening. When I'd return to her, she'd be in the same spot.

Shelling peas are wonderful for kids. Get a variety that doesn't ripen all at once. Arm your kid with a pair of kid scissors so they can cut off pods without destroying the vine. Kids love to open the pods and count the peas inside. Good shelling peas have a creamy texture. The plants rarely make it into summer though, and will get powdery mildew when stressed by heat or drought.

And of course, cherry tomatoes are a gateway drug. Kids introduced to sweet cherry tomatoes such as Sun Gold soon begin eating fuller-flavored slicing tomatoes out of hand. Note: despite persistent rumors, the Sun Gold tomato is not owned by Monsanto.

When and how do you start talking about the importance of sustainability with kids?

For all important topics, including sustainability, we take the approach sex educator Amy Lang promotes: instead of having one big conversation, we have thousands of tiny conversations. We talk about sourcing pigs that we know had a happy life. But we're careful to say that these are personal decisions that we've made for our family, because I don't want my kid telling other kids on the playground that the cows in McDonald's hamburgers led miserable lives. This happened to us once--after conferring with some boys on the playground, my son triumphantly walked over to me and said, "Dad, guess what? You were wrong. McDonald's does have good food!" I could read clearly what the other parent on the playground was thinking: "Asshole!"

So as not to create reactionary children, we try to keep an open mind and bring balance to our eccentric personal eating habits. We try to focus on flavor and quality, as these are side-benefits of sustainable food that benefit kids directly, rather than as an abstract concept. We constantly compare our homegrown produce with store bought produce. I'll literally cut up a plum from the store and a plum from the garden and have them conduct a taste test. We're open to our children choosing the grocery store product. Our children prefer our strawberries, with their garnet-red interiors, and our eggs, with their brilliant yellow yolks. Admittedly, my kids (and even my wife) do prefer "factory catsup" to dad's homemade catsup. But hey, two out of three ain't bad.

Even when I lose these individual head-to-head battles with factory food products, I still win. My mother once offered my son an apple and he asked, "Which tree did this apple come from?" He's starting with an understanding of where food comes from.

Joshua McNichols
McNichols' daughter digs lettuce and cheese sammies
You're a proponent of local grains and grind your own flours. How can a reasonably busy parent fit that in to a weekly routine? Why is it important?

If you already bake and own an electric grain mill, it's hardly any extra effort to grind your own flour. It takes maybe two to five minutes a week. To be honest, I find it more convenient to grind my own. Because whole grains keep almost forever without spoiling, whereas flour, once ground, begins to oxidize and lose much of its nutrition almost immediately. Were I not grinding my own, this knowledge would compel me to buy small quantities of local flour frequently from the grocery store. Instead, I make quick trips to my basement, where I store grains in five gallon buckets.

If you don't bake, that's another story. It does take more time to bake than to buy pre-made baked goods from the store. But there's no comparison in quality. And the variety you can achieve by keeping many different grains in your pantry makes baking hard to resist. I've grown so fond of my emmer farro pancakes I can't stand Krusteaz pancakes anymore.

If you're eating out with your family, where do you go?

We hardly ever eat out as we're still not out of the woods financially. On the rare occasions where we do eat out, it's sort of like eating cake. We enjoy guilty pleasures. The perfect french fry. A nitro-infused draft beer. I love high-end restaurants where the chefs source local food, but for me, such dining experiences are out of reach. I had the honor of going to Canlis recently, where the food is outstanding, but struggled to hide the moth holes in my suit jacket. Luckily, thanks to the strategies we discuss in our the book, we can afford to eat fresh, local food every day at home.

What's a quick favorite recipe for dinner?

Many favorites take prep up front, but then are quick to heat up on the night of the meal. Pulled pork or beef roast, for example. Over several days I'll thaw a roast in the fridge, then cook it low for hours and hours at 220 degrees with a jar of canned tomatoes, sauteed onions, a pint of broth, a good splash of vinegar, salt, cumin, smoked paprika, a little cinnamon, and a bay leaf. Then I pull apart the tender meat, reduce the sauce, and mix. I do this up-front work over the weekend, then freeze it in multiple tupperware containers to thaw on a busy night when I have no time to cook. Add a quick handful of greens from the garden, a piece of fruit, and buns from the freezer and you have a well-balanced meal.

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