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Harvard Researchers Help Cambridge Kids Develop a Taste for Ancient Grains

Harvard Researchers Help Cambridge Kids Develop a Taste for Ancient Grains

Unique pilot project launched this year

At a time when gluten-free food is the rage and wheat products are becoming public enemy No. 1, why should we encourage our kids to learn about ancient wheat, much less grow it?

An unusual project involving Cambridge Public Schools, Harvard’s Zooarchaeology department, City Sprouts and some devoted volunteers has fifth- through seventh-graders planting ancient grains this year in Cambridge school gardens.

According to Peter Burns, technical assistant at Harvard’s Zooarchaeology lab, ancient grains are very different from wheat engineered for mass production. “They contain far less gluten, are more digestible, higher in protein and taste better,” said Burns. And because they have deeper root systems, Burns said they tolerate occasional droughts much better than their modern shallow-rooted relatives, which depend on irrigation.

The project began last fall with students at five elementary and middle schools in Cambridge planting red lammas, a wheat variety brought here 400 years ago by early settlers, and black emmer, a 2,000-year-old Middle Eastern wheat. These “winter wheats” begin to grow in the fall and then lie dormant until spring. The students covered their gardens with hay for the winter, and will soon find out whether the plants will thrive this spring.

If all goes well, by late June the students will learn to identify the best plants, and how to collect and preserve those seeds for the next year’s class to plant. “Save the best and eat the rest” is how Deyne Meadow puts it, “because you can only improve your crop by saving the best seeds.”

Meadow, a longtime science instructor in Cambridge, is helping develop curricula for the program and has been teaching the kids about seed banks. “We’re trying to get them to understand that a seed bank is one of our most important assets now … because they will be the ones everyone turns to if something happens to one of the five varieties of commercially grown wheat in North America. That’s not a big base when you have access to hundreds that are better adapted to New England.”

For generations, kids have planted fast-growing seeds like peas on classroom windowsills, watching them emerge and unfurl for just a few weeks before moving on to the next thing. If successful, this outdoor program will connect students year after year as they depend on the previous grade for seeds, duplicating the way agricultural knowledge was once passed down.

Along with the seeds, students will hand down lab notes that document seed types, planting dates, weather conditions, and other observations, giving the younger grade a head start on improving the next year’s crop.

Using seeds from Heritage Seed Conservancy in Western Massachusetts, Greg Beach of FoodCorps helped about 100 students plant seeds last fall in three City Sprouts gardens. Beach thinks multidisciplinary learning is the way to go. “What I like about this project is it’s not just isolated ideas. It shows kids how everything is connected.”

Beach is also working with Meadow and volunteer Paula Phipps to develop a science curriculum for fifth-graders, and the team will regroup with teachers over the summer to decide what direction to take it in next.

Science lessons could be expanded to include food systems, climate change, and biodiversity, and the focus on ancient grains creates opportunities in social studies as well. Students could study American history, early settlers, and how growing grain changed societies, both here and thousands of years ago in the Middle East. Blending science and social studies, the students could investigate why a seed from the Middle East could grow in New England, and what climate and society were like 2,000 years ago when it was first cultivated.

In a few years, they could even add culinary arts to that list. “If they got it together and really worked at it, they could probably get enough grain to make something, and that would be my goal.” said Burns. “You learn so much more by doing things.”

Greg Beach couldn’t agree more. “The kids really seem to be enjoying it, though it's a lot of new information for them. We like to use hands-on activities to help make connections between what they learn in the classroom and how that fits into the real world.”

And since that real world is changing and conventional crops now face frequent and lasting droughts, ancient grains just might make a comeback. If they do, Cambridge kids will be ready.

Note: Ancient grains were planted in three City Sprouts gardens serving five public schools (Haggerty, King Open, Cambridge Street Upper School, Vassal Lane, and Tobin).

Photo: Peter Burns checks on ancient Chinese millet growing in Harvard’s greenhouse, along with several other varieties, including the two featured in this story.