The kids at Fruit Science Summer Camp in Rainier Beach learn to love spiders (almost) as much as strawberries.
The kids sit in the shade, talking about dirt. They’re at the distractible ages of 9 to 12, it’s a perfect sunny summer day in Seattle, and they’re involved in discussing soil. They’re animated about it.
The question is posed: What kind of soil do plants need to grow well?
“RIIIIICH!” one young woman answers, rolling out the word with relish.
For more information on City Fruit
Donations to City Fruit support the Fruit Science Summer Camp program as well as the organization’s work cultivating, harvesting and sharing the fruits of Seattle’s urban trees. Find out more at cityfruit.org/join.
For information on Fruit Friday sessions for kids in August, contact the Rainier Community Center.
What rich soil looks like, feels like, smells like — brown, soft and “more wetter,” possibly a little stinky — is explored. Then: What did they plant earlier?
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“Pollinator flowers!” a young man answers. “They’re going to attract bees and butterflies!” He pumps his fist in the air.
The current gardening agenda: transplantation of strawberry plants. (Later, everybody gets to take one home.) The conversation digresses briefly to the matter of the transplantation of the human heart, then someone worries about the possible presence of spiders vis-à-vis the strawberry project. The group is advised that in the garden, spiders eat other bugs that would, given the chance, eat the plants.
“Oh, cool!” one young man says.
This is Fruit Science Summer Camp at the Rainier Beach Community Center. The garden’s alongside the tennis courts, the corn growing tall. The program represents a brand-new collaboration between local nonprofit City Fruit and Seattle Parks and Recreation. If you’ve heard a lot of talk about meaningfully connecting kids and food, but not seen much action, to be here represents a revelation. It’s working — you can feel it, and also see, hear, smell and taste it.
In a spacious, cool room back inside the community center, the Fruit Science Summer Camp leadership team sits down together, offering strawberry-lemon-mint water that the kids made. Belinda Chin, coordinator of the City of Seattle’s Good Food program, says the team is piloting in the South End for a reason, seeking to “address historical disparities in access to and use of land … it breaks down along racial lines.” The Parks department, interacting with youth and families, can, she says, “actively find these gaps … using food as the platform for community-building.”
“My vision is to connect the kids to the land,” Paris Yates says, “particularly African-American kids who live in this neighborhood.” He’s the official gardener for the Parks’ one million square feet of vegetable gardens and fruit trees (that’s 23 acres).
Earlier in the day, a young camper lost control, throwing some chairs with surprising force in a fit of frustration; firm but loving counsel got him back to a state of stability. “If you have a connection to the land and feel ownership,” Yates says, “the outburst we saw here, that becomes less of a problem.”
The kids have only begun to connect. In the future, the organizations hope to offer more than the two weeklong camps for a couple dozen kids, plus Fruit Friday sessions at the Rainier Community Center in August, that they began with this year.
Meantime, Fruit Science Summer Camp sessions in the community-center kitchen, according to City Fruit’s Natalie Place, let campers “be hands-on with food, experiment with flavors, get a chance to be creative in the kitchen.”
Patricia McDowell and Tanesha Jones facilitate the culinary programming, talking with the kids about the five senses while they make — and eat — stuff like fruit sushi. The first reaction to that was, “‘Rice with fruit?!’” McDowell says. “But they liked it!”
Chin says the leadership team “looks like it looks” — multiracial — “frankly, for a reason.” Everybody nods. It’s a matter of “reflecting their cultures back to them,” she says.
Just how manifold the kids’ cultures are comes out in an afternoon session with a guest from the Seattle Public Libraries, as the kids write a “bio-poem” about food and their lives. The blank in “I am _________ American” is filled with Mexican, Ethiopian, Chinese, Cajun and more.
“I’m from Puerto Rico!” one young lady exclaims. Another solemnly raises her hand. Called upon, she ventures, somewhat shyly, “I want to say my culture.” Yes? “Vietnamese!” she sings out.
Writing her poem, a camper notes a foodstuff from her culture that some people might not want to eat: “alligator on a stick, because it’s from a nasty animal.” Another camper writes “I am just American,” describing his culture’s cuisine as “fun” and “delishous.”
In the kitchen later, Jones and McDowell conduct a fun and delicious activity: making ice cream, with the kids’ choice of fruit, of course. Half-and-half, sugar and vanilla are mixed up; the freezing method is, ingeniously, an individual portion of ice-cream-to-be in a sealed baggie that each kid shakes inside a bigger baggie of ice and salt.
“I’m doing it at home,” one camper decides, “making it for everybody!”
Jones says they choose recipes for just this reason — simple stuff, no stove, so the kids can share what they’ve learned.
Some, though, already cook at home. “I can use the gas stove,” a camper interjects, only slightly boastfully. “I can make hot dogs!” another says with pride.
Then a camper gets a brain-freeze, theatrically clutching his forehead. Asked how it tastes, he still smiles, “Great!”
The ice cream’s mostly eaten. “What do we do after we cook, guys?” McDowell asks.
“Clean up!” the group choruses. City Fruit Summer Camp is really working.