Cub Scouts at Rota Kiwan Scout Reservation in Texas Township are sowing seeds for the future through their participation in a unique local food project this summer at camp.
The "Seed to Life" program was developed by Megan Yankee, Marketing Innovations Manager for the Michigan Crossroads Council, as a way to address the growing demand among Scouting parents for fresh food options for their campers.
"We always want to be on the cutting edge and remain relevant because this is how we will continue to grow our Scouting program," Yankee says. "Many of our parents are increasingly requesting healthier food options for their Scouts at camp and this program is the perfect way to feed them while also teaching them how to grow fresh food."
The program will eventually be replicated at properties throughout Michigan, owned by the Michigan Crossroads Council, Yankee says.
"We want to make these learning opportunities available to each one of our Scouts," she says.
About one acre at Rota Kiwan is dedicated to the Seed to Life initiative. The space now houses a 20-foot by 48-foot hoop house which contains rows of plants including green beans, bok choy, and a variety of greens, and a 9-foot by 9-foot chicken coop with eight chickens.
A few hours of each day at camp is set aside for Scouts to weed and maintain the plants in the hoop house and care for the chickens.
Branden Piekarski, Farm Project Manager, says each group comes through for about an hour each day.
"We start by sitting them down and asking them what experience they have with growing food and where their food comes from," Piekarski says. "It’s been a nice surprise to hear that someone in their lives or somebody who farms has taken them to a Farmers Market. I’m pleased that it’s part of their lives in some way."
A visit to the composting area provides a visual lesson and an opportunity to show how microorganisms breakdown.
Piekarski says the campers also have been learning about how far their food travels before getting to them. Many of them don’t realize that 60 percent of food costs go into transporting what they eat.
Daily visits to the chicken coops, however, are what the campers get the most excited about.
"The kids absolutely love the chickens and like feeding them grass and mealworms," Piekarski says.
The curriculum as well as food-related games and activities were developed by Janet DeZwaan, a retired schoolteacher from Kalamazoo who raises her own chickens; Hether Jonna Frayer, owner of the Fresh Food Fairy in Kalamazoo, and Steve Johnkoski, a founding member of Sprout Urban Farms in Battle Creek. All three are members of the Seed to Life Steering Committee which also includes Chris Dilley, director of the People’s Food Co-op in Kalamazoo and Natalie Fuller, owner of the Cheese Lady in Mattawan.
"Each of these individuals brings a unique perspective with a common goal of increasing the local food movement and highlighting its importance to the residents of southwest Michigan," Yankee says. "Their input has been invaluable."
While Seed to Life is not what some people may associate with the Boy Scouting movement, Johnkoski says he thinks it is the perfect fit. A former Cub Scout and Boy Scout, he says Scouting is a positive program that continues to foster and encourage positive experiences for its youth.
"The Boy Scouts is an organization that attracts a wide variety of youngsters which means it needs to provide a wide variety of programming," Johnkoski says. "It seems to me that the Scouts has always been a collection of positive, social things. I use what I learned in Scouting every single day.
"There were no throwaway skills or knowledge that I got. A lot of the lessons we learned were that you need to be a credit to your family, society, and community."
A relative newcomer to Scouting, Piekarski says he thinks it makes sense to place a heavy emphasis on the outdoors and the importance of working together as a community.
Piekarski says he intends to grow the program to include an orchard and opportunities to demonstrate organic gardening techniques that Scouts and their families can replicate at home. He says his next project is to construct raised planting beds with a hoop attachment.
The plants and the animals are the visible part of the program that has at its core a focus on building strong social and community bonds. There is a naturally-occurring interdependence because no one does small garden farming in isolation, Johnkoski says.
"They are a community of people who care for each other and the earth," he says. "They learn interpersonal, interdependence and self-reliance skills. You need to have that stuff on board."
A retired schoolteacher who now teaches at Kellogg Community College in Battle Creek, Johnkoski says Seed to Life has a lot of potential to impact hundreds of young people each year as well as their families and communities.
"When they come into that clearing and see those plants growing and learn about the food they get to cook, it's proof that something amazing is going to happen," Johnkoski says. "This is how Scouting connects with youngsters."
Jane C. Parikh is a freelance reporter and writer with more than 20 years of experience and also is the owner of In So Many Words based in Battle Creek.