OK, so even if you think you don't have time to worry about what middle school kids are eating, you should read this article. Read this article for information and inspiration. Trust me.
by Peggy Orenstein
New York Times Magazine
March 7, 2004
It started with a peach. Not just any peach but a Frog Hollow Farm peach, coaxed into its fullness by the rich loam of the Sacramento River Delta. A golden peach suffused with a lover's blush, a hint of erotic give at the cleft, its juice sliding down the chin at the gentlest pressure -- it was a peach that tastes the way peaches once did, the way they should. It was the peach with which Alice Waters, the founder of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, the chef who revolutionized American fine dining, imagined she would transform children's lives.
It was Frog Hollow peaches, which can sell for about $5 a pound, that Waters took seven years ago to the first day of summer session at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Berkeley. She was carving an organic garden out of a parking lot next to the playground, planting the seeds for a schoolwide program to promote ecological and gastronomic literacy. One bite of these peaches, she thought, and the scales placed on students' eyes by the false prophets of the junk-food industry would fall away. They would see the folly of their Devil Dog ways and convert to the gospel of lush produce. Like Genesis inverted, the fruit of knowledge would lead them back to the garden of innocence. It didn't quite work out that way. ''They wouldn't touch the peaches,'' Waters recalled. ''They said they were furry.''
That was in 1997, and although Waters, a former Montessori teacher who advocates experiential learning, has been subject to a few lessons herself, her near religious sense of mission is undiminished. These days the student-tended garden is a stunning acre. She has also built a cooking classroom at the school, whose students are largely middle- and low-income children of color, with storage cabinets of handmade, recycled materials and compost bins nestling on indigo linoleum. Waters is raising the $400,000 annual budget for these two projects, collectively known as the Edible Schoolyard, through nonprofit organizations, including the Chez Panisse Foundation.
Last month she upped the ante, presenting a districtwide proposal to the school board that, she says, will ''transform education through the school-lunch curriculum.'' The first step will be a multimillion-dollar 15,000 square-foot dining commons at King. Furnished using renewable materials and serving breakfast, lunch and a snack made from local organic ingredients, it will serve as a model for how she believes the nation, and not just its elite, should eat. (Last year she also started a garden-to-table project at the coincidentally named Berkeley College at Yale, involving the kinds of students who would be more likely than the middle schoolers -- who actually reside in Berkeley -- to become patrons of Chez Panisse.) Her dream is to spread her ideas across the country, as she did with her new American cooking in the 1980's, but this time transcending class and age. By re-engineering schoolchildren's taste buds, Waters says, she can reform America's relationship to food -- to what we eat, how we eat, where it comes from and how it ought to taste.
Waters has always been as much activist as restaurateur. Her passion for simply prepared food using the freshest ingredients first blossomed in the French markets she wandered as a student in Paris, then marinated in the counterculture of 1960's Berkeley. A result was a melding of politics and pleasure. She considers food a vehicle -- the vehicle -- for social change. Rather than parlaying her celebrity into a TV show, a chain of restaurants or a frozen-food line, she has used it to preach conscious consumption, her ultimate recipe for overcoming postmodern alienation and overstuffed lives. She says that if Americans would choose seasonal, organic food grown through sustainable techniques by local farmers, if we would serve caring meals at the family table rather than scarfing Happy Meals in the minivan, we would restore family values, transform our communities and stabilize the environment. We would also enjoy ourselves more. ''There's so much pressure to continue the way we're going,'' she says, ''and no enlightened direction to go the other way. You have to begin someplace.'' She gestures around the middle-school kitchen. ''And I think it's with children. It's right here.''
One afternoon while waiting to meet Waters, I sized up her competition: the Snack Shack, a dilapidated outdoor stand, is the only place King's 900 students can currently buy lunch. The fare is pizza, hamburgers, hot dogs and nachos -- though calling these greasy items prepared elsewhere, wrapped like airline food, frozen and reheated by those names is an insult to junk food.
As students from King whirled around, flirting, playing basketball, lolling on the grass, I asked a few of them what they had eaten the previous day. A sixth-grade girl could recall only that she had two doughnuts for breakfast and half a sandwich and candy for lunch. An eighth-grade girl skipped breakfast and lunch altogether and had a Coke after school, followed by a sandwich for dinner. The boys ate more consistently, but the nutritional content was not much better: breakfast was Frosted Flakes or hash browns from McDonald's. Burgers or pizza for lunch. Lots of chicken for dinner. Vegetables beyond carrots or corn were scarce, unless ketchup counts. The closest thing to fruit for many was a bag of Skittles candy. Only two children had eaten balanced meals within 24 hours. This in a town renowned as a foodie's mecca. Nationally, a third of children eat fast food for at least one meal a day.
Weaning children from their three basic food groups -- fat, sugar and salt -- won't be easy. The statistics on childhood obesity have been repeated so often that they risk becoming mere background noise. According to the Centers for Disease Control, one in six children ages 6 to 19 are overweight -- even more among African-American and Latino teenagers. Among other things, overweight kids are at greater risk of developing asthma, diabetes and high blood pressure. Fast food, a sedentary lifestyle and the decrease in the number of schools offering physical education classes fuel the trend, but the 29 million students who sit down to school lunches daily also encounter meals riddled with fat. That's partly because the National School Lunch Program's mandate is also to provide a market for surplus agricultural commodities, particularly beef and dairy products.
To Waters, the obesity epidemic is a symptom of a deeper issue: how fast food and industrial agriculture are destroying the environment and our culture. ''We're losing the values we learned from our parents when we sat around our family table, when we lived closer to the land and communicated,'' she says. ''The way children are eating now is teaching them about disposability, about sameness, about fast, cheap and easy. They learn that work is to be avoided, that preparation is drudgery.''
Waters describes a seductive world, one that tugs at nostalgia for the past. Who would disagree with the importance of the family table? Who really prefers to eat at Taco Bell? But for single parents, or those in hectic two-income homes or any mom or dad balancing the swirl of children's scheduled activities, Waters's vision might inspire as much guilt as longing. Waters, who is divorced and stopped cooking at Chez Panisse 19 years ago after the birth of her daughter (now a Yale student and the impetus for the project there), acknowledges as much. ''It's hard to keep the nuclear-family table together,'' she told me. ''But it meant even more to me as a single mom. I brought in a whole lot of friends to come and eat with us.''
Given the crisis in children's diets, particularly those of poor children, some also question the wisdom of Waters's emphasis on local and organic ingredients. ''We should beware of economic elitism,'' warns Adam Drewnowski, director of the nutritional sciences program at the University of Washington in Seattle. ''Going to an inner-city school and telling kids to eat organic is trying to project a middle-class lifestyle without giving people extra money to attain it.''
Alice Waters doesn't want to hear from naysayers, nor does she want to dwell on the question of how a district that is laying off teachers can rationalize gourmet meals, even if private financing foots much of the bill. ''I refuse to operate in a paradigm of scarcity,'' she says. She admits that raising the nutritional level of school food would be useful but insists it's not enough. ''There's a health emergency and a planetary emergency,'' she says. ''We have to be aware of whom we're buying our food from and how it's produced. You can't just take the vending machines out of the cafeterias and think that solves the problem.''
Ultimately, Waters says, if you focus solely on health, you'll never change kids' eating habits: you must start with pleasure. ''Kids need to find these foods to be delicious so they fall in love with them, and it changes their lives forever.'' Freshly picked produce is tastier than that which has lingered in cold storage. And that, she maintains, may inspire a kid to choose an apple over a Snapple.
Waters has learned a thing or two since the Frog Hollow peach debacle. These days at the Edible Schoolyard, the first lesson for incoming sixth graders is picking and roasting an ear of corn from the garden. For many it's the first time they've tasted the fresh, and certainly the fresh-picked, version of their favorite vacuum-packed vegetable. While tilling the garden, they're encouraged to graze the Cape gooseberry patch or snack from the esplanades of fruit trees. Slowly, carefully and always emphasizing participation in cultivation and preparation, students are enticed to try the more ewww-producing stuff: asparagus, kale, fava beans.
''These kids remind me of my daughter when she was about 4,'' Waters says. ''They don't like to try what's unfamiliar. They don't want their food mixed together. Those are big psychological barriers. If they haven't put time into the garden and in the preparation and sitting around the table, it's 50-50 whether they'll eat something even if it looks good.''
Waters envisions the dining commons as a similar act of seduction. Entering the ''beautiful, convivial, anti-institutional room,'' the children will look through an open kitchen to a wood-burning pizza oven. They'll be involved in setting the tables with cloth and real cutlery. The proposed menus themselves read little differently from those of a traditional school lunch. There is oven-fried chicken, sausage-and-pepper pizza, beef tacos. The difference is in the preparation and ingredients, the freshness of the accompanying salads and fruit. ''I'm not trying to pull out the hot dog,'' Waters explains. ''Maybe we have a hot dog, but it's made with great pork and tastes great and the roll is right and we're buying this from the right people.''
Waters is not the first to dream of matchmaking struggling farmers with local schools. Farm-to-school programs have been gaining ground among health advocates, environmentalists and the Department of Agriculture for nearly a decade. There are now programs, though more limited than the one Waters envisions, in 400 school districts in 22 states. Considering that a school the size of King can consume 250 pounds of potatoes for one meal, such partnerships could guarantee security for local farmers, change planting patterns, stop urban sprawl and potentially lower prices.
But how, precisely, would such a system work? One sticking point, according to Robert Gottlieb, professor of urban and environmental policy at Occidental College in Los Angeles, is the logistics of purchasing and distribution. The L.A. school district, for instance, decided a program in which farmers' markets supplied produce for in-school salad bars presented too many variables, among them inconsistent supplies and having to coordinate with different farmers. Instead it opted to go with its established wholesale system. Another difficulty is that Waters's locally grown, organic meals may end up costing about $5 compared with the current $3 for a typical school lunch. Waters would like to institute a sliding scale, with more affluent parents subsidizing others; she'll also encourage community members to sponsor individual children. That might work in food-obsessed liberal-hearted Berkeley, but larger-scale success would demand radical change at the federal level. Marsha Guerrero, the Edible Schoolyard program coordinator and Waters's lieutenant for the dining commons, argues that's possible. ''When we understood how many kids were smoking, we launched national antismoking campaigns and drug-education programs in schools,'' Guerrero says. ''This issue is at least as serious as those are.''
One morning last year, I wandered through the Edible Schoolyard garden reading the student-painted signs for roses, spearmint, grapes, strawberries, fig trees, onions, poppies. The sixth and seventh graders spend 10 weekly 90-minute sessions here as part of their science curriculum and an equal amount of time in the kitchen with their humanities classes. The eighth graders visit each venue about six times a year.
Kelsey Siegel, who works as garden manager, listed the tasks of the day: the students could choose to help build a bench using a sustainable cement mixture of clay and straw. Or they could plant mustard greens or radish seedlings. Or weed the garlic. As a special treat, they also got to make pizza in an outdoor wood-burning stone oven, built by a friend of Waters's.
Within a few minutes, the students had scattered. By the pizza oven one group rolled out a cornmeal crust, brushed it with a layer of garlic-infused olive oil and sprinkled the top with feta cheese, spring onions, chard, rosemary and mint. ''This cheese smells like feet!'' announced a compact boy in a red fleece pullover. Then, realizing he'd been impolitic, he added, ''I guess it's a good way to eat if you want to be organic and vegetarian.''
As I walked back to the kitchen, I bumped into Waters and Guerrero. ''What did they think of the pizza?'' Waters asked expectantly. Before I could reply, Guerrero, the voice of pragmatism, jumped in. ''They hated the cheese, didn't they?'' Waters furrowed her brow a moment, then brightened. ''If the kids think feta is weird, why not have them make their own fresh mozzarella? It's the easiest thing in the world.''
The kids may still prefer Domino's, but Waters is onto something: teaching about new foods, emphasizing participation and offering choices are all critical to nudging children toward better diets.
A Cornell University study found that elementary-school students who were educated about healthier options introduced in the cafeteria were significantly more likely to sample the new items, and a U.C.L.A. study found that adding a salad bar to the cafeteria, which allows kids to choose their own fruits and vegetables, increased produce consumption at lunch 40 percent among low-income kids.
Researchers from Children's Hospital in Oakland recently endorsed Waters's plan as a defense against obesity and diabetes. Meanwhile, preliminary results of a three-year study on the Edible Schoolyard curriculum by Michael Murphy, associate professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School, are intriguing: after one year, students at King, compared with a control group at a similar middle school, showed improved behavior and fewer emotional problems. They were savvier about ecology, and their overall grade point averages improved.
''What this research shows about vegetable eating,'' Murphy continues, ''is that you probably ought to put kids in a garden but also teach them about gardens and cook the food from the garden and have them taste it and see it's delicious. And then do it repeatedly. That's why a dining commons would be effective. Eating a cucumber one time isn't enough.''
That night, Waters invited me to dinner in the upstairs cafe at Chez Panisse. We slid into a simple wooden booth. Waters recalled that when she started the restaurant, which had one floor then, people told her she was crazy. The tables were too close together, they said, the atmosphere too casual. Finding a reliable network of local farmers who used sustainable methods was inconceivable. And serving just one prix fixe option for dinner? Absurd.
But that's the thing about Alice Waters: practicality is not her starting point. She is a romantic, believing in her vision even when it seems unreasonable, going about making it happen and waiting for everyone else to catch up. Perhaps her plan for America's schools will indeed be like her fine dining revolution, with its mixed lettuces and sumptuous peaches: years from now we'll look back on today's lunchtime offerings, which seem so inevitable, and see them for the soggy iceberg lettuce and canned string beans they are.
Our waitress set down the entree Waters ordered for us: salmon (wild from Oregon) with spinach (from nearby Terra Firma Farm), spring onions (in season for a few fleeting weeks), chervil butter and a sprinkling of young peas. I panicked. I hate peas. But since I was dining with one of the world's renowned chefs, I forced myself to dig in. With the first sweet bite the prejudice I'd clung to since I was, yes, 4 years old, melted away. Waters, oblivious to my revelation, continued doing what a visionary does best: she preached about how to introduce kids to vegetables in ways that would make them ask for more and waxed on about starting a chain of tortillerias to finance her projects. And she makes you believe, if just for the space of a dinner, that a better world is possible.