In 2004, while researching an article about childhood obesity, I did some very simple digging about the Hartford school system and the kind of "food" it was serving to its students. What I found was in no way even remotely surprising: students, young and younger, were served largely preformed food-like substances that had little if any nutritional value, were often deep-fried, and were rife with fat calories. As I wrote in that article,
On Monday, June 7, students had a choice between the McDonald's-mimicking crispy chicken nuggets with barbecue sauce (417 calories, 19 grams of fat) or a sliced bologna-and-cheese sandwich with lettuce (391 calories, 23 grams of fat), topped off with a slice of chocolate chip cake with chocolate chip frosting (calories, sugar and fat content on desserts were not provided). The next day's menu included Salisbury steak with gravy (492 calories and 29 grams of fat) or ``rib dippers'' (380 calories, and 22 grams of fat).
There was virtually nothing fresh offered, and the students--many of them poor kids from troubled neighborhoods including Hartford's violent north end--were, and likely still are, nutritional sitting ducks. The food they had access to in school reflected the lives they were leading outside school: unhealthy, negligent, and dangerous. Worse? The state had proudly convinced itself that what these children were eating was okay for them, even as the number of cases of diabetes and asthma among them soared. There's nothing quite like denial in service of extreme ignorance.
Driving back and forth across the state, I marveled at the amount of lush, open land immediately surrounding the bigger population centers, and given the state's agrarian past, I couldn't fathom why--if we honestly care about our children as much as we say we do, or like to think we do--at least some of it was not being used to grow food for the school system. Everyone would benefit, I thought; the kids would benefit, the schools would benefit, the farmers and food producers would benefit. Better still: introduce kids to the physical act of growing their own food, and watch them enjoy the much-needed self-esteem bolstering that would come from harvesting and cooking what they've grown. Even better? Introduce kids to the importance of knowing where their food comes from so that the worries--about eColi, about ammonia in their hamburgers, about pesticides sprayed on the commercial, fried vegetables sitting on their plate--are for naught. Isn't this a good thing? Call me naive.
"It'll never happen," I was told by the former director of the Connecticut Farmland Trust.
"Why not?" I asked her. I was wide-eyed, in that "let's put on a show" kind of way that notoriously pisses off the people on the front lines. And then I mentioned Alice Waters, and The Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley California. She rolled her eyes, which is a response that Alice often unwittingly elicits, love her or hate her.
Fast forward six years; it matters not one iota that the Obamas have a lovely edible garden on the grounds of the White House, or that virtually every city and town in America is in at least some proximity to a farmer's market. It doesn't matter that the phrase "Locavore" is now in our cultural lexicon. It doesn't matter that as of this writing, a number of Edible Schoolyards have been launched in other cities, and that countless children who have been involved with the program have benefitted to the degree that, at the least, they have a stronger interest in eating actual food (as opposed to food product), and at the most, they are capable of making better, healthier choices about what to eat and what not to. Because virtually every facet of education leads to the conclusion that if you want to teach a child something--anything--it's best to show them, and to share with them, rather than tell them and hope to hell it sticks. Want to teach a kid another language? Speak to them in that language, and engage them in everyday contextual conversation using that language. Want to teach a kid about growing and eating healthy, seasonal food? Speak to them in that language, and get their hands in the dirt and their hearts in the kitchen. This is not rocket science.
So what is it exactly that is so threatening about the concept of in-school food and agriculture education like The Edible Schoolyard? What is it that so peeved Caitlin Flanagan, who, in a now-famous rant in The Atlantic, added two plus two and came up with eight (in a connection of the dots that would have made Dickens' circumlocution office proud) and implied that practical literacy and subsidized healthy food education are mutually exclusive? Maybe it was just the wrong sort of food education.
In the ravaging article, Flanagan points out that
This notion...bears the hallmark of contemporary progressivism, a kind of win-win, "let them eat tarte tatin" approach to the world and one's place in it that is prompting an improbable alliance of school reformers, volunteers, movie stars, politicians' wives, and agricultural concerns (the California Fertilizer Foundation is a big friend of school gardens) to insert its values into the schools.
Perhaps Flanagan should better familiarize herself with other issues surrounding the insertion of values into schools, like the issue of school prayer. Or the mandatory teaching of creationism and suppression of science. Or perhaps the issue of placing fast food vending machines in schools. Or the issue of Pizza Hut's extraordinarily successful Book It! reading incentive program, which rewards students with individual pan pizzas when they reach a targeted reading level. Or the Colleyville-Grapevine Texas school district's multi-million dollar 1997 advertising space sale to Dr. Pepper, which gave the soft drink company the exclusive right to advertise its products on the roofs of local schools, so that as students were flying in and out of the local Dallas airport on their way to Disneyworld, the first and last thing they would see was a bucket of branded, carbonated corn syrup. (The contract was up in 2007.)
In agreement with Flanagan, no doubt, is Randy Parker, CEO of the Utah Farm Bureau, whose organization is "placing books on agriculture in Utah schools to correct what he says are "lies and distortions" that vilify America's conventional farming practices"; he took the issue of values one step further, and said, in a recent Salt Lake Tribune article that
his organization of about 27,000 members is purchasing books to correct "eco-propaganda" messages aimed at children that assert agriculture is ravaging the environment.
"Our children are flooded with a variety of 'go-green' messages," Parker wrote in the Farm Bureau's Winter newsletter. "Children are being traumatized for not recycling an empty yogurt container or forgetting to turn off the lights."
Parker went on:
"YouTube's comic anti-agriculture portrayals warn us that 'scary green monsters' of eco-propaganda are seeping into children's lives. Lies, distortions and social agendas are being presented as fact by our biased media," Parker wrote in a newsletter, named by the American Farm Bureau Federation as a top magazine.
That the American Farm Bureau is backed by Monsanto should come as no surprise; neither should the fact of their co-production of the television show, America's Heartland, which is featured nationally on PBS and educational stations, and is also backed by GMO-positive kingpins including the American Soybean Association, the National Corn Growers Association, the United Soybean Board, the US Grains Council, the National Association of Wheat Growers, among others.
The question, of course, is where does this leave the kids? And if this is, as Flanagan says, ultimately a war of "values," whose values are safer? It's a good question to ask yourself the next time you're chowing down on some ammonia-laden ground beef, 5.5 million pounds of which were sold to the federal school lunch program last year alone.
Did they make it into the Edible Schoolyard? Probably not.