Sunday, August 30, 2009

After-school Snack Program

On Thursday I was required by my school district to attend a "snack training".  The training had two purposes: the first was to sign up to receive after-school snacks at no charge to the students participating in our after-school program.  The second was to learn about the federal regulations guiding this program (which is part of the National School Lunch Program) so that we don't inadvertently do anything to jeopardize our snack funding while administering the snacks.

Wow, I thought I knew all about the School Lunch Program, but I didn't know it included snacks!   The students in our after-school program get free snacks at 3:30, as long as they participate in our activities.  Fantastic!  It turns out that each snack consists of two parts (i.e. cheese and crackers) to ensure a well-balanced refreshment.  Even better.

But wait, if the students refuse to take both parts then they can't have a snack at all.  All or nothing folks.  And if you take both parts of the snack, you have to eat them both, or throw the leftovers away.  Even if the packaging is in tact.  No sharing.  And definitely no saving.  The biggest no-no of the After-school Snack Program is bringing your snack off campus, or home to share with your hungry siblings.  Now, wait a minute, isn't this program designed to provide nutritious food to students who might not have access to snacks at home? What if they're not hungry at 3:30 because they had school lunch at 1?  Well, the food service providers who ran the snack training tried mightily to explain that this is a food safety regulation to prevent cross-contamination (read: fear of H1N1) and reduce the school's liability.  I suppose this makes sense.  And I'm not trying to rail against the Feds because obviously it's no easy task to develop national food regulations for school programs.  It just seems a bit rigid, and what happens to the snacks that don't get eaten? There definitely aren't snack seconds.  Just a very large trash can in the middle of the room. 

I am not writing to prematurely complain about a program designed to increase food access in impoverished communities (well, maybe a little), but rather to set the stage for what I'm sure will be a deluge of posts to come on after-school snacks.  Because although I pop my head into the cafeteria at lunch time to say hello to my students, I will have a lot less contact with the lunch program.  As the proud administer of the after-school snack program at my middle school, I'm sure that I will have plenty to say on the subject of snacks.  What I'm most interested in, besides rules about distribution, is the quality and nutritional content of the snacks.  Because if they are anything like the lunches, then we are in trouble. 

On a positive note, our after-school program is lucky enough to participate in Kids Cafe.  Thanks to the generosity of the Capital Area Food Bank, students receive free meals three days a week after participating in after-school programming.  Their siblings and parents and friends can come too! The only caveat is that the children in our program eat first.  Sounds incredibly reasonable.  Teachers who stay late, and program staff can also help themselves, so that leftovers do not go to waste.  I am obviously excited about this program, and cannot wait to write about it next week.  Stay tuned ...

Schools and Food

After many years working in youth development and garden-based education, I just received a degree from Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy in Agriculture, Food and Environment. And after immersing myself in the science and policy of all things food related- from the 2008 Farm Bill, to soil and water science, renewable energy, nutrition facts and food pyramids, farmers markets, food stamps and apple orchards - for two years, I find myself doing exactly what I was doing before my educational endeavor: youth development and garden-based education. Except this time it's in Texas, I am in a public school, and I have a slightly more sophisticated perspective on food and its role in the lives and education of American children.

So here I am, to write about - vent, process and share - my experiences with food and schools, to see if we're making any progress (whatever that means). There is undoubtedly a growing political and public dialogue about our food system and the nutritional value of the meals we consume. There are countless, passionate and dedicated individuals, organizations and public servants fighting to make changes to our food system. My advisor, Kathleen Merrigan, from the AFE program is Deputy Secretary of Agriculture under Obama! If that's not a sign of progress, then I don't know what is!

But what is the impact on our nation's children? I know that I - a relatively affluent, white woman who was raised by liberal parents and liberal schools in Massachusetts (or Massatushetts as I more often hear it called around here) - have better access to larger and more diverse farmers markets, to organic beauty products and clothes in Whole Foods, to locally produced eggs and beer, to an ever-widening community of people who think just like me and who love to garden and cook and eat delicious foods that are healthy. However, I also know that the fifth graders that I worked with this spring in Cambridge, Ma, and the middle schoolers that I work with here in Austin, are not having the same experiences with food. And I'm going to write about it. Maybe others will contribute their own experiences, and we can take a look at what's changing, what's not, and maybe we'll come up with some more ideas about how to change this whole wretched food system.

Disclaimer. Yes, I took two semester of Stats at Tufts. Yes, I understand the value of quantitative, randomized, control trials.  But, no, I do not share the love of statistics of many of my fellow Jumbos and I believe in the value of qualitative observations, however small and subjective they may be.  I was an anthropology major during my undergrad years after all.   So I present to you a biased, individual perspective on schools and food.  Enjoy! And please contribute.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Worms, ah!

Okay, this is slightly off topic, but no doubt amusing for foodies who love compost and vermicompost as much as I do.  And for anyone who has taught children about decomposition, brought worms into the classroom and raved about what wonderful creatures they are, read on.

Educators: I do not advise including this story in your decomposition lessons. 


I am writing to tell you about my beloved worms.  But beware, if you are someone who has lived with worms in their home, it is quite disturbing.  I remember when I got my first batch of Red Wigglers in Somerville, someone (either my nervous roommate or suspicious boyfriend) asked if the worms could escape from the carefully designed worm bin.  And I scoffed, of course not! They looove their warm, cozy bedding, why would they ever try to leave the worm haven under the counter?  I'm pretty sure I said this in a sing-songy, overly confident, obnoxious tone.  I couldn't sing the praises of worms enough.  They are the perfect pets and they work for you, all day and all night, by eating your food scraps and excreting the most lucious fertilizer you could hope for.  Or so I thought.

Soon after arriving in Austin I ordered worms on the internet because I could not find anyone local to get them from.  They arrived quickly, to my delight, and I prepared them the same cozy worm haven in the same type of bin as the one I had in Somerville.  I was worried about how they would stand the heat, since I ultimately wanted to keep them out on our balcony.  Various internet sources assured me that if they weren't in direct sunlight, they could survive in temperatures up to 108.  I decided to leave the bin inside, in our living room, for the worms' first night, since they no doubt had had a traumatic journey via UPS and needed some extra care and AC to make them feel right at home.  It was a chilly 72 degrees inside our apartment.  I checked on them before I went to bed and left the lid slightly ajar so they would have plenty of ventilation in their strange new home.

"Um, something has happened," said Kris carefully as he woke me up with a horrified expression on his face the next morning.  "Your worms are dead." I didn't believe him, I didn't want to get out of bed, out of my own cozy haven but the look on his face convinced me to take a look.  My worms were not merely dead.  I stumbled into our living room, and there in front of my eyes was a worm massacre.  Worms had fled the bin in an exodus, looking for SOMETHING - I still don't know what - that I hadn't provided for them in their cozy worm haven.  They were spread out across the carpet, each one shriveled and hard, inching along till their last moment and dropping dead from dehydration on our brownish pink carpet.  The most adventurous ones made it to the front door, under the dining room table, across the kitchen tile towards the trash can.  These pink sticks of death were under the TV cables, stuck between the carpet and the wall, halfway up the tapestry that covered our table. 

It looked like a war scene, where hundreds of starving refugees (wormugees in this case) fled in search of anything but home.  When I lifted the lid off of the bin, there were still a few dozen worms left, hunched together in small groups on the top edges of the bin.  They were next, planning their escape and completely ignorant to the fact that the brave worms who had fled before them now lay strewn across the fuzzy brownish pink battlefield.  I quickly put the bin outside, where the survivors promptly perished in their sweltering, and obviously undesirable, cozy worm haven.  I am totally traumatized by the scene that greeted me that morning.  And I am certainly going to take a break from my beloved worms for a while.  Epilogue: the dead worms were carefully collected by Kris and Abby and now lie peacefully at the bottom of a vacuum cleaner.