Regrettably, I didn't get to attend a Slow Food USA Eat-In on Labor Day, since I was too busy sunning myself on the Gulf Coast. I did, however, sign their online petition, stating that "I believe that change can’t wait: It's time to provide America's children with REAL FOOD at school." This petition is Slow Food USA's kick-off to a lobbying initiative to include provisions for healthier, locally sourced school lunches in the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act this fall.
Despite my absence at the Austin Eat-In at Rain Lily Farm - or perhaps this was in spite of absence, intended to inspire guilt - I received an email on Tuesday telling me about all the delicious foods that were consumed at Eat-Ins across the country: carmelized-onion and goat cheese quiche, lemon and herb-crusted chicken with verjuice, lavender-poached fruit, foie gras and fig compote, and BLTs with pesto mayonnaise and thickly-sliced, locally raised bacon.
At our own little beach Eat-In, we chowed down on organic sausages and fresh corn, hot off the grill (with a fine layer of local sand for some extra crunch). Whole wheat buns, ketchup and mustard, red and yellow peppers, and Spanish rice also made an appearance.
I have no idea what my students ate that day, but I can tell you that it wasn't foie gras or BLTs with pesto mayonnaise, or even organic sausage. If I had to guess, I'd say that the only foods (if you can call them foods) that our diets had in common were ketchup and mustard. As for Tuesday, I KNOW that the students' diet consisted mainly of fried foods, packaged foods and white foods. Anything with color was overcooked and came from a can. After-school snack that day was the cheese sticks and crackers combo, with a couple of 6 oz cartons of juice to wash it down (the cartons contain 100 percent juice - "mixed juice" - but only 13 percent Vitamin C) .
Dinner left much to be desired (for me, anyway) and instead of the fresh looking spaghetti that arrived last week, the middle schoolers were delighted by prepackaged hot-pocket pizzas. These were accompanied by canned pineapples that received a mixed review, and very soggy looking green beans, most of which ended up in the big black trash bags. Who can blame the kids for not eating their greens, when they more closely resemble browns? I was thoroughly disappointed that the main course came in a package. As a good friend of mine tells her elementary school students in Somerville, MA, "if it exhales when you open it, it's probably not that good for you."
While I have little immediate control over what is served to my students on a daily basis - unless I win the lottery and stop by a farm stand each day on my way to work to pick up fresh snacks for 200 - I understand that I am well poised to influence the way that they think about food, to sow the seed for more healthy food choices in the future.
In my Food Food Food! class on Tuesday I used apples as a medium for discussing the distribution of natural resources and the relative scarcity of arable farmland around the world (apple activity courtesy of the National Science Teacher's Association). After dissecting the apple into as many halves and quarters and eighths as possible (and trying to teach fractions along the way) there were apple seeds scattered everywhere, and I used this teachable moment to discuss plant parts and the life cycle of plants. My students were full of questions about where different foods come from and we had a lively discussion about what vegetables look like before they are harvested. Everyone happily munched on the extra apples that I brought with me to the class, and the kids were extremely excited when I took them out to the three raised beds behind our school and we made a list of vegetables and herbs to be planted this fall.
I know that despite their enthusiasm for apples and our future garden, the students in my Food Food Food class ate hot-pockets for dinner without a second thought, and they probably went home afterwards and munched on a bag of Doritos. But I didn't go home swamped in despair. During class, one of my sixth graders asked if we could plant the apple seeds in our garden. I explained that apple trees take many years to grow and mature enough to produce fruit, and that even if we planted our apple seeds that day, the plants would not bear apples until my middle schoolers had gone away to college. Talking to children about food and farming is like planting that apple seed. It's not like growing tomatoes where you get results within a few months. You have to nurture the apple tree. And if you are patient and diligent you can be certain that years later your hard work will bear fruit.
I don't expect my students to go home and demand carmelized-onion and goat cheese quiche from their parents, or even to start bringing wholesome brown bag lunches from home. I will be patient and relish in the knowledge that my passion for growing food and eating well-balanced meals - and taking the time to talk to students about it - serves as a model for children who may not have been exposed to this kind of enthusiasm for healthy, locally-produced food before. I strongly believe that change is the result of a two-pronged approach: national and global policy changes - like the ones proposed by Slow Food USA - that alter the way we grow food and what we serve to our children during the school day, and the grass-roots approach, where education leads to healthy choices made by individuals, families and communities.