Blood, Phlegm & Bile:
Parenting with Humor

What I Learned From My Peas

This afternoon, while harvesting the last of the spring peas, I wistfully recalled all the delicious pleasure they have given me. But since I think the same way I water my tomatoes—deeply but infrequently—I began to ponder a more profound question: What have I learned from these peas?

Food has become so complicated in our society. It’s been industrialized to make it cheap and plentiful, with the ironic result that simple whole foods are more expensive than highly processed products. Another result is an epidemic of lifestyle-related health problems among our young people, many of whom don’t have enough opportunities to exercise, eat healthy food or spend quality time around a family dinner table. Experts and policymakers have sophisticated plans to address various aspects of this complex problem, but out there in the garden, I realized there is a simple solution to our nation’s public health crisis: Everyone should grow peas.

Governments at all levels have programs to promote wellness. One hopes they do some good, and at least they’ve gotten rid of that confusing food pyramid (“Ooh, sweets and fats are right at the top—they must be the most important things to eat!”). But Congress can’t legislate healthy diets, although it could change the subsidy policies that favor high-fructose corn syrup over fresh produce.

And the President isn’t going to issue an executive order mandating 30 minutes of daily physical activity. That would just politicize the issue. Rush Limbaugh already tells his listeners that exercise must be bad because “liberals” like the Obamas advocate it.

Nor can we expect the food industry to improve access to healthy food. Sure, fast food companies have launched some high-profile campaigns, but they are mostly just absurdly funny attempts to appear to care about nutrition and health, like the recent announcement that for every MegaJug of soda they sell, participating KFC restaurants will donate a dollar to diabetes research. Or the decision by McDonald’s to add oatmeal to its breakfast menu, but only after adding more sugar than a Snickers bar and a bunch of processed ingredients in a highly creative effort to turn a healthy, simple, whole food into junk.

No, press releases from corporate PR departments notwithstanding, the good food news is not happening at the drive-thru. It’s happening right in our own backyards. And in community gardens, many located in urban “food deserts,” where a pea patch may be the neighborhood’s only source of fresh veggies, and a good place for young people to be active and spend time with positive role models. In a place like that, kids are bound to internalize some good health values along with their peas.

Many programs address individual pieces of the health crisis in more or less effective ways, from bike lanes in cities to calorie charts in restaurants. But gardening is a comprehensive approach that addresses all the underlying issues associated with lifestyle-related health problems. The simple act of planting a pea is actually an amazingly efficient form of multi-tasking. A kid in a garden is imultaneously creating healthy food, exercising, experiencing nature and engaging with the community.

Gardening is subtle exercise, like yoga, and its benefits may not be readily apparent. The first time you see a group of people doing yoga, you think: That’s not exercise, they’re barely moving! Then

you try it, and the next day you’re sore in muscles you didn’t even know you had. Garden exercise is also slow but powerful. Turning soil with a pitchfork is a fantastic cardiovascular and upper-body

workout. And when you’re done planting a pea patch, you’ve done several hundred squats. Weeding and harvesting keep us on our regular workout schedule, and when the season is done, we have a huge pile of vines to chop with a shovel for the compost pile. Talk about motivation: The finer we chop the material, the faster it will turn into beautiful compost for the garden.

Together, all these elements of growing peas add up to a holistic health treatment. But just as important is what we’re not doing: sitting on a sofa, looking at a screen, absentmindedly shoveling chips into our maw. Gardening is a lifesaver for people like me, who love good food and tend to over-indulge, because no matter how hard you try, you just can’t eat too many peas.

This is what I really love about the garden: It validates my vices by channeling them into harmless outlets. In the pea patch, I can binge on as many sweets as I want, and my gluttony just gives me a massive dose of vitamins, fiber, protein and omega fatty acids. I find peas as sweet as candy, but they have exactly the opposite effect on us: Peas have a unique combination of phytonutrients that researchers believe actually reduces the risk of type 2 diabetes.

Peas have a similar beneficial effect on the garden itself. Rather than depleting soil nutrients, peas fix nitrogen, improving the soil for the next crop. Gardening does the same thing to people. According to a recent survey, over 80% of today’s community gardeners were exposed to gardening as children. So when a grownup plants a pea patch with a child today, it improves the chances that the kid will grow up with an understanding of real food and a desire to grow it.

Amid all the nationwide efforts to improve public health, a pea patch reminds us of a simple truth: A small thing can make a big difference. Peas seem designed for the small scale of a kid’s hand or a community garden plot. All you need is a handful of dry peas, sown just an inch or two apart. Unlike tomatoes or pumpkins, peas don’t need a lot of room. In fact, like urban gardeners, they thrive on density, quickly growing into a thick jungle of strong, lush vines. We can string some twine between posts to provide a little outside support, but mostly the peas support each other. They grow close enough to hold each other up, in yet another obvious metaphor for the community garden itself.

And in just a couple months, the vines yield a surprising abundance of pods stuffed with delicious peas. They even come pre-packaged in environmentally friendly, compostable wrappers, making them easy to share and enjoy right in the garden.

I started growing peas in an urban garden plot, but this year, in my own suburban yard, I’ve discovered that peas turn every garden into a community garden. You have so many, you have to invite, then beg, the neighbors to hop the fence and pick some.

Peas bring people together, in the garden and around the family table. I’ve spent the last several evenings at the dinner table with my two boys, shelling peas, laughing and talking about everything from Gregor Mendel to Star Wars. Sure, I had to agree to pay them for this work, but I don’t mind. It teaches them the value of work and calculating their wages even gets them doing a little math during the summer. The original deal was a penny per pea, but I wildly underestimated the harvest and soon realized that having a few bags of peas in the freezer for the winter was going to cost me several hundred dollars. I tried to convince them it was a misunderstanding, that I had promised to give them each a centipede, not a cent a pea. They didn’t buy it and do not desire arthropods as pets, so I had to renegotiate.

The point is, we were together at the table, having a meaningful conversation about food. Most amazing of all, the whole time we sat there, my sons were absentmindedly popping super-healthy fresh vegetables into their mouths. And that was priceless.

© 2011 John Hershey

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Parents are the bones on which children sharpen their teeth. - Peter Ustinov

John Hershey is a dad, a writer, and a lawyer (in that order). He writes a syndicated biweekly humor column about parenting and family life.. His columns have been published or accepted for publication on websites and in magazines around the world, from Maine to Oregon, Colorado down to Texas, and down under in Australia.

Blood, Phlegm & Bile: Parenting with Humor appears monthly on But, why the gross title? Well, for one thing these are three substances with which every parent becomes quite familiar. They were also called the "humors" by medieval scientists who believed that the proportion of these bodily fluids determined a person's health and temperament. So it's a pun! A pun requiring a lengthy explanation, but a pun nonetheless E-Mail

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