By Léo Azambuja
Planting seeds of wellness in children’s hearts and minds would be a good description of what a young woman born and raised on Kaua‘i is set to accomplish throughout the Hawaiian Islands. In practice, what she is really doing is helping educators to instill healthy choices and environmental stewardship in their students’ lives through an ambitious project already set in motion.
“We need to grow healthier children that care about where their food comes from,” nutritionist Tiana Kamen said. “As a world traveler, I have seen a lot of devastation in the world. We are commercializing food with big monocrops; we are processing foods with harmful chemicals. I see what it does to people and the planet; we really have to do something about it. Studies show that almost 1 out of every 3 children in Hawai’i is obese or overweight before age 5. If we introduce kids to healthy habits like cooking and gardening with local whole foods at a young age, they’re going to keep doing that for life.”
In late 2018, with the support from the Hawai‘i Department of Health and the Hawai‘i Department of Education, Tiana published Farm to Keiki — Cooking, Gardening and Nutrition with Children, a titanic project that is now in every Hawai’i charter preschool and trickling into DOE and private preschools statewide. Her goal is for Farm to Keiki and school gardens to become a part of every preschool and elementary school in the state.
Farm to Keiki is a 183-page large spiral-bound hardcover curriculum book that helps teachers and parents in a very simple yet comprehensive way to prepare classes for young children. Teachers and parents can teach pretty much any academic subject by using the curriculum based on healthy lifestyle choices, locally grown nutritious foods, hands-on gardening and food preparation.
Tiana said the Department of Health originally asked her for 15 lesson plans plus 15 healthy recipes. “And then I created this book,” she said, laughing, while holding the hefty hardcover. The book is so all-encompassing, with gardening, healthy nutritional information, and healthy meal recipes, that Tiana says families can use it at home as well.
Farm to Keiki is divided into three main segments. The first one, “Meet the Plants,” teaches about many food plants we grow in Hawai’i.
“I tried to make it really simple,” she said. This part increases students’ — and adults’ — knowledge about plants and gives ideas for using them in activities in the classroom, kitchen and garden. It shows locally grown foods and their seasons, and traditional Native Hawaiian foods. It gives ideas on how to prepare the foods in the kitchen, and many of them with very specific guidance.
The book’s second part has detailed lesson plans. They are fashioned for schools, but can easily be translated to be used at home. “You don’t have to know anything about plants to teach the children, because all the information is here,” she said, pointing to the book.
And then there is the book’s third part; the recipes.
“After getting my masters degree in nutrition, I felt confident to provide recipes using locally-grown foods that every household should have under their belt, because every child and adult could be healthier eating them,” Tiana said.
She gives a classic example of macadamia nut milk. Macadamia nuts, high in healthy fats, are originally from Australia, but found a niche in Hawaiian agriculture more than a century ago. You can find macadamia nut milk at the store, Tiana said, and it’s “healthy-ish,” but it’s still being shipped here and it often has sugar and other chemicals added to it.
“It’s simple, affordable and tastier to make this fresh,” said Tiana, explaining that all you do is mix macadamia nuts with water and honey in a blender, and strain it.
“That’s what Farm to Keiki teaches — mac nut milk does not come from a container, it comes from mac nuts. Coconut milk does not come from a can, it comes from a coconut. We need to teach our children about eating whole foods by preparing and eating them together,” she said. “Making fresh food can be more time-consuming, but it’s much more rewarding and much better for you and the Earth.”
In February, Tiana launched a statewide, DOH-funded series of workshops for early childhood education teachers to help them to get acquainted with the new curriculum. The first workshop was on Kaua‘i, at Island School’s Na Pua Keiki Preschool, attended by a couple dozen teachers and KCC early childhood education students.
Koloa Early School teacher Siobhan Thielen said she attended the workshop because she believes in gardening with children, and connecting them with nature. She likes the curriculum book because it’s a tutorial, with step-by-step lesson plans, but it is also very adaptable to different classroom environments.
“You can simplify it as simple as you need it, and you can expand it as much as you need it,” said Siobhan, adding some schools have larger properties and are able to have large gardens, while smaller schools can have just potted gardens.
Siobhan is planning to introduce the curriculum to her students this spring, breaking it down into different aspects: flowers, vegetables and animals in the garden. The lessons, she said, will incorporate all the different areas teachers are supposed to hit, such as vocabulary, motor skills, colors, shapes, textures, sensory, math and more.
During the workshop, the teachers did a tasting of Mainland-grown Cuties versus Kaua‘i-grown mandarin oranges. The local fruits were by far juicier and sweeter, because the local fruits were organically grown on a small orchard and picked when they were supposed to be picked, rather than before ripening.
“If this is picked way before it is ready, and it has to sit in a box on a giant ship for days and days, is that good for our planet?” Siobhan asked. The kids, she said, will remember that when they get older.
“We live on a garden island. Do you know what that means? You and I have a little bit of a responsibility to grow a little bit of our own food,” she said. “We could do that. How can we start? Let’s learn in school, and these kids could do it at home if they don’t already, and help our planet.”
As Siobhan talked about her plans to follow the curriculum, her young daughter, Rio, made quite an effort to interrupt her to insert her own opinion.
“Mom, also, ‘cause sometimes, the cuties get rotten,” Rio said, while drawing flowers and butterflies on a piece of paper. “But the local mandarins are better, ‘cause they’re not usually rotten, and they’re good and juicy.”
They say every expert was once a beginner, but in Rio’s case, the beginner was already the expert. And it is largely because of experts like Rio that Tiana places so much time and effort in caring for our planet.
Years ago, after earning undergraduate degrees in Environmental Studies with emphasis in Sustainability and in Global Studies with emphasis on East Asia, Tiana’s drive focused mostly on helping the environment. “I just cared about the Earth; I was really into the movies Fern Gully and Avatar,” she said, laughing.
But after introducing a Farm to Keiki pilot program in 11 preschools back in 2011, and later working as the Education Specialist at Limahuli Garden and Preserve, she changed her focus to include the bigger picture of: How we connect with the Earth, how we love and take care of it, and how it takes care of us through the lens oF food and health. This inspired her to enroll at the National University of Natural Medicine in Portland, Oregon to pursue a Masters of Science Degree in Nutrition.
“Food is our greatest medicine, and we can have this medicine every single day,” she said.
Perhaps one of the easiest ways to get people to use healthy foods as everyday medicine is to teach them while they’re young, when their taste preferences are developing. After all, the children really get into growing, cooking and eating their own food, and it’s hard to have them let go of gardening and cooking tools once they start. Children are much more likely to eat food if they have had a hand in growing or cooking it. Tiana said there are “many schools in the garden,” with many things that can be taught in the garden. Learning comes alive when you have a garden.
“I believe if every school, every house had a garden, we all would be healthier, we all would be saving money, we all would feel more grounded and we all would take better care of the Earth,” Tiana said. “So this isn’t about a curriculum, it’s about adopting a farm-to-keiki culture where we are caring for and loving our children by introducing them to the healthiest foods possible growing on the Earth, and we are caring for and loving them by providing opportunities in nature, caring for and loving them by providing a meaningful and high quality education.”
Farm to Keiki can be purchased at Kaua‘i Juice Co, Tasting Kaua‘i Tours and Garden Island Hydro. You can also visit www.farmtokeiki.org to buy the book directly from Tiana or view the entire book online for free. If you want to support any given school, you can buy the book and donate it to the school of your preference.
Tiana also provides professional consulting services as a nutritionist, and she can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or found on Instagram @farm2keiki.