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Revolution or Orthodoxy: Consider the Edible Schoolyard

2010 October 6

Roll out the red carpet, New York: Alice Waters is coming to town.

The hero of the food(ie) revolution, chef, and owner of Chez-Panisse is bringing her project, the Edible Schoolyard (ESY), to Brooklyn, and with it, a host of local, organic problems.

In the summer of 2010, construction began in the parking lot of PS 216 in Gravesend to transform the quarter-acre asphalt playground into a combination garden, classroom, and moveable greenhouse, affiliate of ESY.  The plans for this $1.6 million dollar construction are the picture of a green utopia, designed by WORK, a company specializing in ultra-modern urban architecture, like the proposed Locavore Fantasia.  The Brooklyn ESY will dwarf the previous 5 ESY programs, located in New Orleans, Greensboro, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and even Berkeley, the original, which cost approximately $75,000 to build in 1995.

The Edible Schoolyards program aspires, like its progenitor in Berkeley, to integrate food systems learning into the education of students ranging in age from PRE-K to 5th grade at PS 216.  The idea, according to ESY:

Students’ hands-on experience in the kitchen and garden fosters a deeper appreciation of how the natural world sustains us and promotes the environmental and social well-being of our school community.

For more than a decade, Waters has been attacking the institutions responsible for  processed school lunches with the organization she co-founded, the Chez Panisse Foundation.  Her crusade began as a two-fold effort to battle childhood obesity and promote local/organic farming, but as she claims in her 2009 Huffington Post article, her efforts to teach students to farm are linked to teaching the basics of democracy and community building.

Above and beyond its original mission, Waters’ supporters, like Oprah, argue that the ESY program (developed in conjunction with Columbia University’s Teachers College) reinforces elements of traditional school curricula like science, math, reading, and history.

Waters has a growing list of dissenters who sing a more somber tune.  Her most outspoken, schizophrenic critic/reluctant supporter, Anthony Bourdain, rants the following to the DCist:

Alive Waters annoys the living shit out of me. We’re all in the middle of a recession, like we’re all going to start buying expensive organic food and running to the green market. There’s something very Khmer Rouge about Alice Waters that has become unrealistic. I mean I’m not crazy about our obsession with corn or ethanol and all that, but I’m a little uncomfortable with legislating good eating habits. I’m suspicious of orthodoxy, the kind of orthodoxy when it comes to what you put in your mouth. I’m a little reluctant to admit that maybe Americans are too stupid to figure out that the food we’re eating is killing us. But I don’t know if it’s time to send out special squads to close all the McDonald’s. My libertarian side is at odds with my revulsion at what we as a country have done to ourselves physically with what we’ve chosen to eat and our fast food culture. I’m really divided on that issue.

Another outspoken critic of Waters who has been rebuked to the point of ostracism for her heresy is Atlantic writer Caitlin Flanagan, whose article entitled Cultivating Failure attacked the notion that the Edible Schoolyard approach to education was egalitarian.  She posits the absurdity (potentially) of a Mexican immigrant, son or daughter of a migrant farmer, attending an ESY program, and instead of the coveted American education that will lead them out of poverty, school is teaching them what they already know: how to till the land for minimum wages.  Only with a college education can you have the resources (and know-how) to profit, really profit, from your back-breaking work.

Last year, Waters was the outspoken critic, attacking White House chef Walter Sheib for his failure to use local sustainable ingredients.  She demanded that the Obamas replace him with someone who would be a force for her cause, which naturally infuriated Sheib.  Once a revolutionary, it seemed Alice Waters had become, as Tom Kliman points out in his story for NPR, the Food Police.

With big guns and strong opinions in play for both sides, the question remains: how can a program, developed by Waters and Co., backed by moguls like movie producer John Lyons (Boogie Nights, The Spy Who Shagged Me) and notorious chef-de-vulgarity David Chang, and a nearly $2 million dollar budget, fail?

The answer is it cannot, which makes the situation much more complicated.

Already New York City has plans to expand the ESY program to 25 additional elementary schools (even though City Hall is reluctant to install its own community garden, for the people of New York) with little research on the program’s educational effectiveness to date.

Last week, reports of findings first began to surface about Berkeley’s larger School Lunch Initiatives program (co-created by the Chez Panisse Foundation) and were estimated to be released by UC Berkeley sometime this week (though as of yet there is no report to speak of).  In her article for the Atlantic, Sarah Henry, a volunteer for 5 years at Berkeley’s ESY, writes that the report demonstrates:

• Increased nutritional knowledge among 4th and 7th graders who were fed a steady stream of gardening and cooking curriculum.

• Higher fruit and vegetable consumption among elementary-age students in schools with more SLI components than in students at schools with less-developed SLI offerings, including a preference for leafy greens like kale, spinach, and chard.

• Vegetable intake was almost one serving per day greater in the schools with a beefed-up food curriculum, and combined fruit and vegetable consumption increased by 1.5 servings. About 80 percent of this increase came from in-season produce. In comparison, researchers found a nearly quarter-serving drop in produce intake among other students.

• More positive attitudes about the taste and health value of school lunch in students in more highly developed SLI programs than those in lesser-developed SLI schools.

• Small increases in produce consumption occurred among middle-schoolers with higher exposure to nutrition education as opposed to a drop in fruit and vegetable intake by about one serving a day among students in the other group.

Seemingly, the study will draw impressionistic conclusions like “more positive attitudes”, and indicate that large sums of money dedicated to comprehensive education initiatives produce “increased knowledge” of nutrition and “small increases” in produce consumption.  There’s one more conclusion Henry draws from the study that I’ve saved for last:

There were no detectable differences in academic test scores or body mass index based on differences in SLI exposure.

Finally, we have some food for thought.  As many have argued, school garden programs (like Edible Schoolyard, and many more popping up all around the country) are undoubtedly valuable tools for education.  They may not show the literal results yet, but in time, and especially with the resources granted to schools like PS 216, they will.  However, we must decide whether the expenditures for these programs are worthwhile.  Not every school will be lucky enough to have an outdoor pizza oven and a retractable greenhouse roof.  And these are the programs that will arguably matter the most.

If, as Caitlin Flanagan worries, situations arise wherein children of impoverished and/or immigrant families lose out on valuable time in English or Math class (for those who might argue that cooking/gardening classes don’t take time away from core-classes, consider: for elementary students with fixed attention spans, these lessons could certainly use up valuable, limited focus, and potentially detract from equally valuable ‘playtime,’ an activity seen less and less in elementary education) then we must confront the possibility that these programs are classist, even racist.

I admit that these programs are likely destined to succeed.  I hope they do succeed.  It would be a brighter, happier world, and it might look something like WORK’s depictions of the future garden at PS 216.  But a more sensible solution might be found in the practices of French grade schools with respect to school lunches.  An article in Time magazine dating from last year celebrates the French system in which government money is used to develop a comprehensive school lunch menu.  Produce/meat is bought locally, and a 32-day rotation of lunch meals ensures that children get a variety of unprocessed, farm-to-table foods.  Parents even receive recommendations of dinner foods that compliment their children’s lunches, along with advocacy (which Edible Schoolyards seems only tangentially to provide) for the need to nurture their children’s diets.

A system such as this, which would use public funds, seems to be the true democratic solution to the problem of school lunches, and an equally important tool for educating every child on the benefits of healthy living.  Let’s hope Alice succeeds, but let’s also agree that there’s more than one way  to sow the seeds.

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