Brewer high school students learn alternative to mass-produced food

Posted April 18, 2014, at 8:04 a.m.

NEWPORT, Maine — In an environmental issues class at Brewer High School, students have been studying the make-up and origin of some of their favorite foods.

“We’ve talked about the ingredients in food, the chemicals you can find and what they’re doing to our bodies,” Mackenzie McCurdy, 18, said of the course.

Each student in the class, which is made up of mostly juniors and seniors, had to pick a food that they eat regularly and research how that food is made. Though many of the ingredients did not surprise the students, much of the food was made with chemicals that are not exactly healthy.

To present an alternative to the mass-produced food that is available in supermarkets thousands of miles from where it was created, science teacher Michael Morton took 30 of his students to the Parker Family Farm in Newport on Thursday for a tour and to do some farm chores.

“The overall idea of the class is to help kids begin asking questions about their circumstances,” Morton said. “What other options exist? Do I want to participate in this?”

Ryan Parker, who manages the farm in Newport, showed the students 12 baby piglets, whose parents are not only used for their meat and breeding, but also to dig up unwanted grass and shrubs in his fields. Parker demonstrated how he forms a seedling by splicing together thin branches from two different trees in a process called grafting.

After lunch, Parker pulled sheets of plastic off neat rows of carrots, onions and peas in his greenhouses. The students watched from the outside as he watered the little green shoots and explained why he plants his crops in raised beds and how he cares for them.

“I’ve never sprayed a single chemical on anything because it’s not necessary,” Parker said.

The farm in Newport is an example of Community Supported Agriculture. Sixty to seventy families who pay for a membership at the farm can pick up whatever produce is available once a week in the summer and twice a week in the winter. The Parker Family Farm also has booths at the Brewer and Hampden farmers’ markets.

Parker hopes to imbue some of his passion for locally grown food with no chemicals into students and his community.

“For him, it’s kind of a religion,” said Morton of Parker. “He wants to teach the word of sustainability.”

The idea for the field trip came from the students, however. Parker was a guest speaker in the class earlier in the semester, and the students asked if they could come see his work.

At the end of the day, the students helped Parker remove last year’s tomato and pea trellises to make way for new ones that he will install this year. Then they weeded spinach.

Though several of the students said it would be hard to change their diets, especially because buying food from farmers’ markets is more expensive, Jennifer Allen, 17, said she believes local and organic farms are a good way to eat.

“I like seeing the animals and knowing how they’re treated,” she said. Allen said her family also owns a small farm in Orrington, so she has grown up outside, around animals. She said she hopes to run her own farm someday.

“It opens up my eyes,” she said of the environmental issues class. “You don’t always question a lot of the things around you.”