2013 / 4月
Lin Hsin-ching /photos courtesy of Jimmy Lin /tr. by Chris Nelson
Standing amid lush green farmland backed by Mt. Chading, Meinong’s Long-Du Elementary School, with 230 students and teachers, is the most successful school in Taiwan when it comes to implementing Food and Agriculture Education (“Ag Ed”) for schoolchildren. This is why the school won the 2012 Executive Yuan National Sustainable Development Award.
Since 2005, students at the school have been eating rice, fruits and vegetables they grew themselves, developing an ingrained respect early in their lives for the effort required to bring food to the table.
“Hi kids! The time you’ve been waiting for, lunchtime, is almost here! For lunch today there’s organic corn grown by the fifth and sixth graders. You’ll want to eat it all up!”
It’s lunchtime on a Wednesday, just after finals. A nutritious lunch awaits the students and staff of Long-Du Elementary School in Kaohsiung’s Meinong District: traditional Hakka bantiao and corn picked fresh from the fields that morning.
The kids gingerly shuck the still-hot corn husks, and then chow down on the sweet, juicy golden ears of corn, each innocent face beaming with delight.
On Long-Du Elementary’s cafeteria tables, even the plainest meals are scrumptious. The secret is revealed in the short film Grain, Grain, shot by Long-Du students and teachers. This film won the Children’s Choice Award at the 2006 Taiwan International Children’s Film Festival.
The story is about a particularly extraordinary winter vacation. In the film, counseling director Huang Hung-sung, promoter of the school’s Agricultural Experience Program, gives fifth and sixth graders a bag of rice seeds each and asks them to grow seedlings at home over the break.
At first, the kids thought it would be the simplest of tasks: preparing the soil, planting the seeds and watering—not hard at all. But they didn’t realize that sparrows would snatch up and eat the seeds, and the seedlings would wilt if not cared for. As the new semester began, some students had luxuriant seedlings, while others were sparse and withered.
No biggie: they went on to roll up their sleeves and transplant the seedlings! The plot of land, filled with childhood charm, was the product of everyone’s sweat and toil. As they learned how to grow crops free of pesticides and fertilizers, the kids exerted themselves by picking off bugs and snails and scaring away birds to protect the seedlings and help them grow. And when the semester ended, they celebrated the harvest.
Long-Du students’ agricultural acumen isn’t limited to the spring rice-growing season as seen in the film. In the rainy fall and winter seasons, they turn to a variety of produce such as corn, lettuce, pumpkins, cabbages, and radishes. The fruits of their labor don’t all become their lunch; they’re also sold to the community and even as far away as Taichung and Taipei, the excess revenues going into a special account to fund the sixth graders’ year-end trip.
Seeing the good results of Long-Du Elementary School’s Agricultural Experience Program, neighboring Fu’an and Jidong Elementary Schools also joined in. Meinong’s nutritious lunches of student-grown and -harvested ingredients have become a local trait known throughout Taiwan.
But some may wonder why schools in Meinong, long a bastion of agriculture in Taiwan’s south with many students from farming families, need to carry out this Agricultural Experience Program at all.
Founded 93 years ago, Long-Du Elementary saw its students and teachers growing rice and vegetables together on campus during the Japanese era, committed to the tradition of teaching farming techniques. But in the 1970s, when exam-oriented education burgeoned in Taiwan, agricultural education was no longer a priority. This was even the case in Meinong, where parents gradually stopped bringing their children out to work in the fields with them, and schools quietly dropped agricultural education as a waste of time, instead focusing on teaching to the test.
“The result of this focus on exams was that subsequent generations had no idea how to tend to their land. This is a loss of cultural memory,” laments Huang Hung-sung.
In 1995, when Huang returned to teach in Meinong, he was shocked to discover that too many new-generation Meinong students had no exposure to farming at all, and too many locals were completely uninformed about the past glories of Meinong’s tobacco and rice growing history. To fill in the gaps of memory, he decided to take the plunge and revive the school’s long-defunct agricultural classes.
In 2001, Huang and a group of like-minded teachers created a small nursery on campus so students could gain experience growing rice on a small scale.
After years of finding its footing, the Agricultural Experience Program has taken root, the scale of cultivation gradually expanding from a small nursery to almost 5000 square meters. Their annual yield of Long-Du Rice has reached 1,500 kilograms, cutting down on lunch costs. As their level of self-sufficiency gradually rises, the school plans to reduce the daily NT$35 lunch fee to NT$30, repaying the students’ hard work to their parents.
Huang, who has exchanged his Ag Ed knowledge with numerous Japanese elementary schools, notes that the true value of Ag Ed lies not only in self-sufficiency and knowledge of one’s native land and the environment; more importantly it gives children the chance to experience nature’s beauty and ferocity, and fosters a knowledge of food quality while also inculcating an appreciation for those involved in producing our food.
From hands-on work, the children often discuss with their parents how to make their crops grow better. Bringing knowledge learned at school back home, they try to influence their elders to switch to non-toxic farming methods. These experiences create an unending source of conversational topics for the family.
“Respect the crops and receive grain; respect the aged and receive blessings,” goes an old Hakka proverb circulating in Meinong. From their teachers’ guidance, the children are learning through physical work the rich philosophy of their ancestors toward nature. Long-Du Elementary School’s Ag Ed program, rooted in the land and culture, gives an especially precious flavor to their school lunches.