Cars and fast food are partners in crime when it comes to undermining America's health. Our favorite mode of transportation deprives us of exercise, while our dependence on quick, cheap convenience foods cheats us of nutrients. We reportedly eat nearly a quarter of our meals in our cars, a practice that baffles folks in countries where taking time out to share a real meal with friends and family is still the norm.
But our landscape is changing, literally, and I found evidence of a nascent rebellion against our car-centric cuisine in a rather ironic place: the grounds that surround Automotive High School in Brooklyn. I first noticed squash vines growing outside the auditorium at this vocational high school in Williamsburg back in June when I attended a screening there of No Impact Man hosted by Rooftop Films.
I was intrigued, but had no idea that Automotive High School's edible landscaping was inspired by the school's participation in Slow Food NYC's Harvest Time program, whose mission is to create "a meaningful relationship between young people and their food and the environment by providing hands-on experiences, community engagement, and the enjoyment of good, healthful food."
Automotive's student body is 98% minorities, 93% of whom are male, and 86% qualify for the free lunch program, according to Jenny Kessler. Kessler teaches a class at Automotive High called "Food, Land and YOU," in which students learn about how our food is produced and distributed.
A high school where kids enroll to prepare for a career in the automotive industry may seem an unlikely place to find future farmers or chefs, but Kessler's class, which includes a field trip to a farm upstate, has proven to be a life-changing experience for some of Kessler's students.
Kessler credits Slow Food NYC's Harvest Time program with providing "essential, sustainable funding for most of our garden and cooking supplies. It has been a lifesaver."
So, if you're still thinking of Slow Food USA as some kind of fancy pants organization obsessed with artisanal wines and cheeses, get with the program -- the Harvest Time program, that is, along with Slow Food's many other worthy endeavors, such as their Time For Lunch campaign.
The organization I co-founded, Eating Liberally, was delighted to participate in that campaign by hosting an Eat-In on Labor Day at the Campos Community Garden where we got to sample some of the veggies planted earlier this spring by a group of high school kids as part of Slow Food NYC's Harvest Time program.
We also had the pleasure of hearing Slow Food USA's program manager, Jerusha Klemperer, talk about the importance of feeding our kids fresh, nutritious meals -- something our schools are hard pressed to do when the $2.57 we allocate for free school meals leaves only a dollar or so for ingredients after you subtract all the overhead.
You can't feed kids freshly prepared, wholesome foods at that price. But there is one thing you can buy for a dollar this month that will actually help support the campaign to bring real food back to our schools: you can become a member of Slow Food USA at whatever price you can afford to pay -- yes, even only a dollar.
Why support Slow Food USA? Consider the case of Joseph Garcia, an 18 year-old who enrolled at Automotive High intending to become a mechanic. Thanks to Kessler's class, which relies extensively on help from Slow Food NYC, Garcia found himself drawn instead to a career as a chef.
Garcia took Kessler's class a year and a half ago, and is now studying the culinary arts at Monroe College. In a recent email exchange he answered my questions about how the Harvest Time program has changed his life:
KT: What inspired you to take the food/garden class?
JG: To be honest, when I was in high school, I didn't choose to be in the food/gardening class. It was just assigned to me. I absolutely loved Ms. Kessler's class because of her enthusiasm and her knowledge of the class subject. She taught me so much about organic and conventional farming. Ms. Kessler's class has to be one of the few classes that I actually enjoyed in Automotive High School.
KT: How much did the class influence your decision to go to culinary school?
JG: Ms. Kessler's class influenced me to go to culinary school because she always said that fresh fruit and vegetables are better than anything, and now that I make many dishes inside and outside of school, I can totally agree with her. I only use the freshest ingredients for my dishes.
KT: Did the class alter the way you thought about food?
JG: Ms. Kessler's class totally altered my view of food because back in high school I never used to care about what was healthy, where my food came from, or even how it was made. But now I take into consideration every detail when I am looking to make or even create a new dish.
KT: What was the most surprising thing you learned in the class?
JG: The most surprising thing I learned in the class was how bad pesticides really are to us and the environment. Also how bad animals are treated before they are killed.
KT: What did you most enjoy about gardening?
JG: The thing that I like the most about gardening is the hard work, the more hard work you put into your garden the better your plants and crops will grow. So afterwards you can enjoy "the fruits of your labor".
Garcia added in a postscript that "I love what I am doing in school and enjoy cooking very much...As I prepare any dish I make sure I get the freshest of the freshest ingredients, and when I get the chance I cook with organic stuff as well."
So here's to Jenny Kessler and Slow Food NYC for throwing a wrench into Garcia's goal of becoming a 'grease monkey' and getting him fired up about feeding folks fresh, healthy meals. Sure, we still need mechanics -- and Automotive High is also doing great work teaching kids how to convert cars to biodiesel fuel -- but we need more young chefs like Garcia giving us the means to fuel our own bodies on alternative energy, too; the kind that comes from wholesome, minimally processed foods. There's a green job for you!
Cross-posted from The Green Fork.