Last weekend while hobnobbing around the Georgia Organics conference, I talked often and long about vegetable literacy. I was using those words to describe what the mission of Crop Stories is. It proved helpful in explaining the project to scientists, farmers and extension agents.
Part of what we're doing is helping eaters get to know what's happening out in the fields where their food comes from. (Note, I truly hate typing "where food comes from." Such a cliché, but it works too well.) We provide details that are both practical and emotional. You're not just getting to know your farmer, you kind of move in with them.
The cooking side of the project, as well as the space we devote to telling crop histories, is all about vegetable literacy. Turns out, it's also the name of a book by Deborah Madison, which explores the interwoven relationships between plant species and the rest of the natural world.
I have to admit that I stole the phrase from Deborah Kane, head of the USDA's Farm To School program. During a speech she gave at Georgia Organics' Farm To School Summit, she discussed her graduate work at the University of Georgia in the early 1990s on food systems. Her thesis asked, "Why do C.S.A. subscriptions often trail off by 50 percent or more after one year?"
She had found that farmers running community supported agriculture programs saw booming rates when the system was initially set up, but would lose 60 percent of subscribers in the next year.
The problem, Kane found, was that eaters had a food illiteracy problem. They didn't know what okra was. They expected tomatoes in winter.
"People's perception of what they were going to get out of a C.S.A. was completely out of whack with how agriculture works," Kane said.
There's plenty more work to do, including increasing vegetable literacy in schools, but we've come quite a way. That doesn't mean that I know what to do with a radish.