"The cafeteria is actually one of the most important classrooms in the entire school," Michelle Obama said to applause during a speech to The School Nutrition Association. The cheers were bittersweet as America faces an epidemic of childhood obesity in part due to food illiteracy.
Ask an eight-year old where an apple comes from, and he or she will likely respond "the grocery store." Americans today have become food illiterate. For a nation with deep agrarian roots, our newly obtained ignorance of food is somewhat confounding.
Our global system of food production and distribution has given us unprecedented convenience, from the pre-prepared frozen and fast-food meals (so that we no longer have to learn to cook) to a diverse abundance of year-round produce (so that we do not have to learn what grows in our particular region or when).
In a matter of one generation, we have largely forgotten the most common of common knowledge: what food is, where it comes from, and when it is ready to harvest.
Health officials, worried over the lack of food knowledge among the American populace, have called for an "edible education." A need even Michelle Obama recognized when she visited Mississippi, the country's most overweight state. In Jackson, Miss., elementary teachers are required to eat with their students and encourage them to snack on fruits and vegetables. And according to the Executive Director of Food Services, Mary Hill, healthy food consumption has risen.
Yet, before we can introduce better food into our diet, we may have to reintroduce better food into our vocabulary. And many argue such an edible education--like physical education before that--must begin with our children, and it must be offered in the classroom.
One voice for edible education, perhaps the loudest one, is slow-food expert Alice Waters. Waters' innovative and increasingly popular notion of "Edible Schoolyards", first implemented in a middle-school in Berkeley, California, are taking root in schoolyards nationwide.
These gardens, which aim to replace asphalt-encrusted landscapes, provide students a complete "seed-to-table" experience. Children learn not only how to sow seeds, weed a garden, and harvest the bounty, but also how to prepare the produce into tasty meals. And yes, they even participate in the clean-up.
Edible schoolyards are part of a burgeoning system of urban agriculture that utilizes public lands to grow fresh produce. More than just offering nutritious fruits and veggies to students, edible schoolyards are teaching kids about the seasons and the cycles of life, ecology, and what grows in their particular part of the world. Most importantly, edible schoolyards instill in students a craving to eat healthy, and teach them the skills necessary to provide for themselves.
Many fear it is too late to change adult eating habits in this country. But if we wish our children to outlive us (something that was a foregone conclusion until now), we have to incorporate food and nutrition into our school curricula. "Hands-on" learning--through schoolyard gardens--provides a most effective instrument of instruction.
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