When my two boys were little, we stopped each week at a local farm cart at the end of a dirt driveway to buy fresh fruits and vegetables. Sometimes a teen-ager manned the booth, but mostly the produce was sold on the honor system.
The first vegetable offered each year was asparagus. Although my sons protested servings of the tasty green stalks no matter how I cooked them, they couldn’t resist wanting to stop and look at the bunches gathered in thick purple rubber bands and lined up in neat rows of water-filled containers on the meager wooden stand with a roof.
Asparagus tastes fine to me, so I was eager to buy and turned the stop into a mini-math lesson.
“Here is $5,” I would say, handing a five dollar bill to my oldest child, who was a whiz at third-grade math. “Asparagus is $2.50 a bunch. How many bunches can you buy? Will there be change left over?”
After gazing up toward the clouds to do the mental calculations, my son gave me the right answer of two bunches for $5 and no change.
He and his brother each picked a bundle of asparagus, and the $5 bill went straight into the money box.
The lesson was easy when all they could get were two bunches of asparagus, which I cut up and added to some of their favorite stir-fry dishes or spaghetti pasta salads hoping they wouldn’t notice. My youngest, with his keen kindergarten curiosity, spotted the green tips in his food and promptly separated them to the edge of his plate with a fork. His older brother ate them without complaint.
After a few weeks, strawberries became ripe and the math became more difficult. When we stopped to shop at the farm stand, I announced we could spend $10. They compared the price of the asparagus and the price of strawberries. Asparagus was cheaper, and they could get more for their money. But they preferred the taste of strawberries. The red fruit easily won over the green vegetable. They calculated what we owed, and we dropped it in the box.
Further into the summer, our visits required more time and cash as the selection of vegetables increased to include tomatoes, peppers and squash. Deciding what they wanted and how much they could afford took careful consideration. We all enjoyed seeing what was available each week. Sometimes we found something unexpected such as eggplant. Other times, the selection was limited or a repeat from the previous week.
The math lesson among the country fields was much easier for me to sneak in than the math workbook pages I begged them to do at the kitchen table.
After a few years, the farm expanded and abandoned its honor system stand. The owners built a store that looked like a small barn on land further past the dirt road.
The kids and I stopped several times for shopping, but they didn’t like browsing the indoors with shopping baskets. In addition to local produce, the food selection included non-native crops, such as oranges shipped in from warmer climates. And the conveniences of a refrigerator/freezer section stocked with familiar brands of milk and ice cream made them feel like they were shopping at a supermarket instead of a farmer’s market.
The biggest disappointment was the addition of a cash register. They no longer had to do the math themselves.
We abandoned our weekly stops and eventually started growing our own produce in the community garden. Several summers have gone by since we frequented the farm stand, but recently I decided to revisit the shop to buy a watermelon. Several are growing on the vines in the rented plot of land we share with three other families, but the fruit is a few weeks from ripe.
The one seedless melon cost about $7. Ouch! I stopped at the local supermarket afterward for meat and strolled through the produce section on my way to the check-out register. Squash and zucchini were selling for $1 each, and they didn’t look as fresh as the ones being harvested from our garden.
Later in the evening, I stopped to do my garden chores and came home with a bag of homegrown vegetables. My kids were in the kitchen looking for food.
“Zucchini and squash were selling for $1 a piece at the grocery store,” I said, putting the green and yellow vegetables on the counter. “These came from our community garden. How much money did we save growing our own?”
My oldest son was quick with the math.
“Seven dollars,” he said.
“You need to factor in the cost of the plants, fence and garden rent,” his younger brother added.
Comparing the garden yield with the farm stand and grocery store prices, I figured one zucchini will cover the cost of a plant. The fence was paid for by last year’s crop. And four ripe watermelons will pay the rent. Considering how much lettuce, radishes, beans and herbs we already have eaten from the garden, and the abundance of flower buds promising us future fruit and vegetables on our plants, I say we will make a profit on our investment.
That’s a good math lesson at any age.