I read today in the New York Times Magazine that Alice Waters is on a new crusade to make school lunches in Berkeley organic and to have kids grow their own food in school gardens. A middle school garden she created has an outdoor wood-fired pizza oven in it, so the kids can bake pizzas from the produce they grow. Taste, she argues, and not health concerns, is what drives kids’ decisions and will make them support local and organic produce. That’s in contrast, I’d note, with adults, who buy organic food — if they do — overwhelmingly out of concern for personal health.
Now I’m all for giving kids something decent to eat at school, although I wonder how many parents would be willing to cough up five dollars a day for an organic lunch program. And while I’m all for school gardens in principle, I’m not sure that this is a case where change will start with the young. Nearly everyone I know who grows their own food or is a dedicated farmers’ market shopper either grew up in suburbia with no exposure whatsoever to this sort of thing, or else grew up on a farm. They’re either doing what their parents did or reacting strongly against what their parents did. I can’t think of any serious moral or cultural decision that anyone I know has made because their teachers told them to.
I think if kids are going to grow up to eat better they need to see the adults in their lives eating better, which means education has to start with the parents. (Unless we want to rely on the countercultural impulses of frustrated suburbanites for all the change in this country. Seems like a dangerous proposition to me.) First, if you’re going to buy fresh produce, you have to know what to do with it. Few people do, so teach them. Hold cooking classes (free ones, if you’re on a crusade and believe, like Alice Waters, that eating well should not be only for the rich) to teach people how to prepare food in season. Not frou-frou yuppie food like fava beans, either, Alice, but good basic food like butter beans and fresh peas and collard greens. Teach them how to stretch their food budget so they can afford better-quality food — how to butcher a chicken, for example, so they don’t have to pay a king’s ransom for boneless breasts. Make sure to include techniques that are quick, suitable for busy weeknights, because most people don’t think they have time to cook. (Techniques, that is, that don’t involve a wood-fired pizza oven.) Then organize ways to make all this farm-fresh organic food available to people who think their only option is Chick-Fil-A.
In short, make local and organic food accessible. Not trendy, not superior, but frankly ordinary, what normal people do. Otherwise, I fear these kids will see local and organic food as something with no more relevance to their lives than anything else they learn about in school, and they’ll wind up as cynical about food as they already are about math and English lit.