You Learn What You Eat

 David Sobel

I GOT MY FIRST SENSE of the disconnect between children and food when I was a kindergarten and first grade teacher in a lost-in-the-hills school in southern New Hampshire, multiple decades ago. Intent on a healthy curriculum, I had the students prepare their own snack every day, preferably from scratch. But after weeks of popcorn, apple sauce, and celery sticks with peanut butter, I was itching to explore new horizons. What new thing could we make that the kids would really like to eat, I pondered. French fries? Not terribly healthy, but certainly a fun food that would allow us to take part in the transformation from raw vegetable to tasty snack.

I gathered my group in the kitchen. Their eyes lit up when I announced our task. "So what do we need to make French fries?" No response, as a bit of glint left their eyes. Rephrase and concretize...I tried again: "When you make French fries, what's the first thing you do?" "Well," courageous Steve recollected, "you go to the icebox, open the freezer, and take out the plastic bag with the crinkly things inside." Not one of the children knew that French fries were potatoes. And when we made tomato soup with tomatoes picked fresh from the garden, I was disheartened when Angela said, "This soup is OK, but I like real tomato soup better, the kind that comes in the can."

Most of the $4 billion spent on school lunches in the United States every year reinforces this severing of the conceptual food chain. When was the last time you walked into a school and enjoyed the fragrance of fresh-baked bread wafting from the school kitchen? These days, food appears from somewhere/nowhere out of the back of a truck. There are no smiling grandmothers with splatters of sauce on their aprons ladling up love with the freshly mashed potatoes; today's food service ladies just heat and serve. But in Berkeley, California, carrots are coming straight from the school's garden, food preparation is an integral part of the curriculum, local restaurateurs are selling organic tacos in the schoolyard, and the whole community is recognizing the links between cognition and nutrition.

IN THE BEGINNING was the seed. Well, actually, a handful of seeds. The Berkeley community had a long history of community gardening when Alice Waters, founder of the acclaimed Chez Panisse restaurant, had the vision of a school garden. Neil Smith, principal of the Martin Luther King Middle School, had a parallel vision of empowering teachers and students to enrich the curriculum and the schoolyard through real-world learning. 

A 1995 conversation between Smith and Waters helped them realize that they both wanted to hoe the same row. A couple of science teachers, Phoebe Tanner and Beth Sonnenberg, got intrigued, but were still a bit overwhelmed. Smith recalls, "Alice's vision was so far-reaching, so 'out there' compared to where we were. She was talking about students serving other students lunches that they had grown in the garden, and we were looking at an asphalt, urban lot. We needed to start with the garden before we could talk about the cafeteria and redoing the lunch program."

Fritjof Capra and Zenobia Barlow at the Center for Ecoliteracy recognized the asphalt-breaking potential in these seeds. Compelled by the center's mission to "support educational organizations and nurture communities in schools that teach and embody ecologically sustainable ways of life," they saw an opportunity to recreate a miniature food system on the school grounds. Philosophical and financial support from the center helped to weave together many strands of already existing support for community gardening, and so it was that the Edible Schoolyard was born.

First came the garden, then a student-designed and -built toolshed, followed by a kitchen classroom and specialized food preparation teaching staff to help students turn fresh produce into healthy snacks. The garden became an integral part of the math, language arts, and social studies curricula, and an emotional climate of warmth, mutual support, and trust flourished in the school. 

Esther Cook, manager of the kitchen classroom, reports that students have enthusiastically made and enjoyed such things as Jerusalem artichoke fritters, pumpkin and kale soup, cucumber sushi, and sweet potato biscuits. Cook saw much learning potential in the cooking activities: "Students have learned the origins of staple ingredients by grinding their own wheat and corn into flour and making butter from scratch. They have appreciated the inherent bounty of the garden by counting the seeds in a cherry tomato. And they were struck by the ability of one tiny tomato to hold the potential for 100 plants. 'Enough for everyone on my block!' exclaimed a student."

One garden on one schoolyard is a beginning, but not a significant challenge to Del Monte. Yet if a schoolyard garden can foster learning and community at Martin Luther King Middle School, why not have a garden on every schoolyard in Berkeley, or every schoolyard in California? And since you can't realistically feed all the children in any one school with just one garden, why not create connections between local farmers and the school district?

 Instead of freeze-dried burritos trucked in from the Midwest, how about burritos with organic beans and cheese grown and produced by area farmers, farmers whose fields are threatened by suburban sprawl? The educators, systems theorists, ecologists, and writers at the Center for Ecoliteracy saw the Edible Schoolyard as the first step in a profound shift toward more sustainable and equitable communities. They decided to aim high—convert the Berkeley School District's entire lunch program to all organic and locally grown.

The center staff found conceptual support for their goals in the USDA's Community Food Security grant program, whose goals include: meeting the needs of low-income people by increasing their access to fresher, more nutritious food supplies; increasing the self-reliance of communities in providing for their own food needs; promoting comprehensive responses to local food, farm, and nutrition issues; and developing innovative linkages between the for-profit and nonprofit food sectors.

Janet Brown, program officer for the Food Systems Project at the Center for Ecoliteracy, sees the project as a model for the USDA's goal of linking farms and schools. "In just five years, the Center's Food Systems Project has grown from the funding of a school garden at an individual school site to the complete reinvention of Child Nutrition Services throughout the 10,000-student Berkeley Unified School District. By using food as an organizing principle for systemic change, the program addresses the root causes of poor academic performance, psychosocial behavior disorders, and escalating children's health issues such as obesity, asthma and diabetes. At the same time, the program connects the loss of farmland and farming as a way of life in our region and the social problems facing school communities to children's health."

There's a direct connection, Janet contends, between agribusiness that supports the high-fat, fast-food industry and recent research finding that one quarter of California adolescents are at risk of being overweight. But by creating dedicated markets for local organic farmers, school districts can help to nurture healthier students, minimize the use of toxic herbicides and pesticides, and build community through supporting local business and cross-generational food preparation experiences.

When the Berkeley Unified School District adopted its new Food Policy in August, 1999, it unpaved the way for breaking down both the conceptual mindset and infrastructure of the current food programs. Since the kitchens at most of the schools have devolved to just providing heat-and-serve meals, the school board proposed and 83 percent of the voters approved a $10 million bond issue to renovate all of its elementary school kitchens and build a new cafeteria and kitchen facilities at the largest junior high school. 

Good facilities are a start, but kitchens need inspired staff, so additional grant funding will support a district-wide nutrition training program for food service workers. To facilitate the shift from USDA surplus food to fresh, locally prepared food, further grant funding supports hiring an organic-savvy chef to create whole new menus and new kitchen designs. Finally, to assure that school meal programs can serve delicious, nutritiously complete meals with ingredients from local farms while remaining economically viable, a $300,000 grant from the California Endowment supports the development of a strategic business plan.

And where's all that food going to come from? The project will be hiring a "forager" who serves as an envoy between the school district and local sustainable agriculture practitioners. When project coordinator Jared Lawson did some investigative foraging he found that Sebastapol orchards consistently lost money on small apples that had to be thrown away or sold at a loss because they were outside the standard pack regulations of the California Department of Agriculture. He saw that these apples were perfect for school snacks or for making organic cider for kids. Healthy snacks for students while creating a dedicated market for an unutilizable product for growers—it's a classic example of feeding two birds with one hand!

Most of the $4billion spent on school
lunches in the United States every year reinforces
a severing of the conceptual food chain.

Since implementing salad bars in some schools over the last year, the school district has purchased more than $100,000 of fresh produce from local farmers. This figure will increase exponentially as the district uses its buying power to provide locally grown food for the primary meal program. Further, negotiations are currently underway with Newman's Own and Amy's to explore whether volume purchasing can bring down the cost of providing organic, prepackaged snack foods like dried fruits and healthy cookies. Following Berkeley's lead, San Francisco, Oakland, West Contra Costa, and Marin unified school districts have all requested assistance in exploring similar acquisition programs. Joint purchasing for close to a million schoolchildren might catch the Green Giant's attention.

THE BIGGEST QUESTION, of course, is will the kids eat the stuff? Can McDonald's and licorice whips be replaced by kale and kiwis? Not leaving anything to chance, the Food Systems people have devised ingenious ways to both assess what students want and educate students and their parents about what's possible. The new breakfast program at Oxford Elementary School, consisting primarily of whole-grain oatmeal, is a test of the willingness of children to try something new. Extensive local and organic, seasonal condiments such as berries, yogurt, nuts, seeds, and fresh fruit are provided. Initial assessments indicate that more children are eating breakfast at school and that 59 percent are choosing the whole-grain breakfast over the usual fare of French toast, pancakes, and sugar cereal.

To assess the impact of this program, Dr. Michael Murphy of the Harvard School of Medicine is researching the effects of a nutritionally adequate breakfast on academic achievement, psychosocial behavior, physical health, and school attendance.

The other major change has been the salad bars. Four are in place at the elementary and middle schools and the project aspires to having eight in full swing by the end of the school year. Though salad bars present a certain number of logistical challenges, popularity among students is not one of them. It turns out that if students have grown cherry tomatoes in the school garden, they're more likely to choose them when they see them at the salad bar. So school gardens help to increase the repertoire of students' culinary choices.

The problems have more to do with time—one salad bar won't process students quickly enough, and making lunch longer affects the length of the school day, which impacts the bus schedule, and conflicts with union contractual arrangements. It's a systems problem; Muir's notion that everything is hitched to everything else applies to schools as well. Janet Brown reflects ironically that, "If our goal was to inexpensively create as many eating disorders as possible, then what we would do is shrink the amount of time for lunch." So the solution is not to shoehorn salad bars into a dysfunctional time frame, but rather explore how to adjust the whole system so that lunch can provide both nutrition and the opportunity for productive social engagement.

The initiative at the high school has taken a different tack. In response to the tasteless, unappealing food served at the high school cafeteria, more and more Berkeley High School students have started to hit the fast-food places downtown. Merchants then started to complain about the adolescent influx. Child Nutritional Services suggested that the solution to the problem was to bring fast food onto campus, but the Food Systems Project saw it differently. They went to a variety of local restaurateurs and said, "Here's a captive audience of 3,300 hungry consumers. Do you want to work with us to create organic food choices on campus?" 

The outcome is an on-campus food court, designed after surveying students about how they like to be served. In exchange for being willing to make organic substitutions in their menus, vendors get access to a dedicated market. Stroll into the food court this week and you can enjoy hormone-free chicken thighs and legs from Poulet, sandwiches on organic bread from the E-Z Stop Deli, and pizzas made with organic herbs and Marin County cheese. The Good Food Cafe, a campus kitchen for students studying the culinary arts, offers an organic smoothie. "Any high school in the country would kill for this," commented Principal Frank Lynch.

Student response ranges from thrilled to tolerant. Senior class president Jamie Lee said, "It's great we have a healthy option to the greasy stuff they used to serve in the snack shack. But lots of students just want the food to be affordable and tasty. If it's good for them, then that's all the better." When students complained that the costs were too high the first week, negotiations with vendors led to lowered prices, which was a good opportunity to demonstrate to students that feedback loops in ecological systems tend to move the system toward sustainability.

The Berkeley Food Systems Project is problem-solving that explores connections between seemingly disconnected parts of a system. Wendell Berry calls this "solving for pattern," in which "good solutions promote the well-being of all parts of the system." The health of the soil, of plants and animals, of farm and farmer, of schools and schoolchildren are sustained by connecting the pattern.

Zenobia Barlow points out that, "schools have become a business opportunity for fast food vendors and global food producers.... Our tax dollars are buying a high-fat, high-salt, high-octane caffeine, fast food diet for school children that in turn produces a multi-million-dollar public health problem." This diet also reduces academic performance and contributes to the demise of family farms eradicated by urban sprawl. Instead, the Center for Ecoliteracy and the Berkeley School District are devising a pattern of healthy food, improved academic performance, and sustainable agriculture.

The students, teachers, community gardeners, and ecologists in the Bay Area are on the doorstep of a significant food invention. Think, for a moment, of that food item that beckons to all of our taste buds. With enough innovative thinking, Berkeley students will be able to reinvent that holy grail of American foods—pesticide-free, locally grown, low-fat, and sea-salted French fries that will taste good and be good for us too. Maybe the next time I cook with students, I won't need to feel so guilty.

David Sobel is director of Teacher Certiification Programs in the Education Department and co-director of the Center for Environmental Education at Antioch New England Graduate School in Keene, New Hampshire.