10/25/2012 10:52 am ET Updated Dec 25, 2012

Compassion and Creativity in School Lunch Reform

I am named after my father's mother, Delta Zenobia Barlow, who was born in the Delta region of Mississippi. When I was about seven years old, we went to visit my father's relatives for the first time in my memory on a plantation in Barlow, Mississippi.

I have a few faint memories of that journey: deep, rich, red dirt, a big white house, scattered housing occupied by sharecroppers, and a ramshackle building with a hand-lettered sign that read "The Barlow Store." The whole plantation scene was strange and wondrous and I was trying my best to make sense of what I was seeing.

Something happened in that store that made an impression on me: an exchange between the shopkeeper and a sharecropper, as my uncle stood silently nearby, that revealed to me in an instant that the price charged to the sharecropper for the goods in the store, advanced against the value of his crop at the end of harvest, was exorbitant, and that the whole exchange, the whole system if you will, was profoundly unfair and exploitive. I can remember a sense of revulsion, of shame, like a body blow -- and I remember flushing all the way to my tingling scalp, as my uncle, supposedly an upstanding, church-going, state senator, credentialed the transaction through his silent presence.

The insight that began in that experience, and has been nurtured and reinforced in myriads ways since, is that every intersection in the food system -- from planting, growing, harvesting, transporting, processing, packaging and selling to cooking and serving and how we dispose of or recycle waste -- is a critical juncture with opportunities to be more creative, wise, and compassionate.

That is why I have committed the past nearly two decades of my life to supporting the transformation of school meals -- and it is why I believe California Food for California Kids, a new initiative the Center for Ecoliteracy is launching with support from TomKat Charitable Trust, offers an elegant solution to myriad challenges.

The idea is simple: California schools serve nearly 900 million meals a year. When our schools offer California children healthy food grown in California, we help them to learn and grow. At the same time, we help to revitalize our state's economy, reactivate regional food systems and create living wage jobs -- frequently for people who reflect the very diversity of our student populations -- while preserving precious resources of land and water. California Food for California Kids is a perfect example of what farmer/writer Wendell Berry, calls "solving for pattern." We are creating a solution that cascades, solving for multiple problems without creating any new ones. It's good in all ways.

As part of our California Food for California Kids initiative, we published the cookbook and professional development guide Cooking with California Food in K-12 Schools, already downloaded tens of thousands of times. The cookbook, in turn, served as the basis for two statewide conferences that attracted nutrition services leaders who prepare as many as a third of the meals served in California schools. We have worked with individual districts, offered strategic consultations and created multiple other resources. This initiative is focused on our home, California. It is our great hope that we will inspire educators, parents and citizens in every state to create their own initiatives.

You can learn more about California Food for California Kids and access Center for Ecoliteracy resources to support this movement here.

And then, will you share below what you are doing in your community to foster compassion and creativity through school lunch reform?

Crossposted from the Center for Ecoliteracy.