Friday, April 24, 2009

Edible Schoolyard, the Best Next Step for an Ideal Food System

In class we recently made an extensive list of goals for an idealistic food system. Some of these goals were about education, others were about respect for the farmers and taking pleasure in the food we eat. These problems are difficult tackle because they are deeply rooted in our culture, and fixing them requires changes as rooted as our dietary habits and our view of the world. We aren’t educated about our food because farms are typically out of sight, and rarely make it into classroom discussions (aside from this course). According to Alice Waters, we don’t take pleasure in what we eat because we are eating home cooked meals less and less, and replacing them with meals on the go. This changes our set of values and our world view. In a recent New York Times Article, Alice Waters discussed this phenomenon particularly in children:

"They’re also learning a very troubling set of values at the same time they’re getting their hamburger or eating in the car. They’re learning that food should be fast, cheap and easy; it should be available 24 hours a day; and that resources are infinite. It’s a very narrow view that we have of the most important activity of our lives."

Alice does provide a very promising suggestion for these problems. She suggests the integration of organic gardening in our schools, or what she calls “edible schoolyards”. Students could help grow the food while learning about biodiversity, ecology, botany, and where our food comes from. This would provide the type of hands on learning that many schools strive for. The food could also be integrated into their lunches. This idea has been implemented here and there around the U.S., but Berkeley is a notable example. They built a garden and kitchen classroom which has been running for 12 years. It seems to be a very positive learning experience:

"We’ve learned a lot from it. If kids grow it and cook it, they eat it. And we’re talking about kale and chard; we’re not talking about sweets. We’re talking about the connection these kids make with what they’re doing, and how they’re building their self-esteem and how enjoyable it is to come back to nature."

The point that students actually eat food like kale and chard is an important one. Every parent has trouble getting their kids to eat healthy foods. Many companies exploit this common frustration by suggesting their product is tasty enough to please children while still containing enough nutrients or small enough amounts of sugar to please parents. The Kix slogan is a perfect example: “Kid Tested, Mother Approved.” While this isn’t the worst cereal, many other cereals disguise themselves as a ‘part of a healthy breakfast’, but what that really means is that the rest of your breakfast has to be healthy in order to make up for the sugar and lack of nutrient in your cereal. A CBS news story claims some cereals are worse than eating a donut.

Another important point about the idea of the edible schoolyard idea is that it is reaching children while they are still adapting their taste buds and forming their system of values. While our taste buds will inevitably change over time, the food we eat as a child will always play a role in our future eating habits. If we can have a good relationship with food that is good for us at a young age, we will likely maintain this relationship our whole life.

This approach hits several of the points Raj Patel articulates in the conclusion of Stuffed and Starved. By focusing on children and creating a good relationship with healthy food we are transforming our tastes (#1 on his list). By feeding children the food they grow on site they will be eating locally and seasonally (#2). By incorporating the garden into their learning they will not only grow and eat food that is agroecological, but they will learn about it (#3). While it may not have a direct impact on local economies, it will encourage students to get involved in CSA’s and other activities that may have been intimidating or simply not a considered previously (#4). By integrating farming into schooling, it could potentially break the barriers and lower levels of discrimination toward farmers and other food service positions (#5) (Patel 303-310). For these reasons, I think the implementation of edible gardens would be a huge step in the right direction.

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