By Mark Winne
My summertime reading is almost done, not because I've managed to plow through the long list of eclectic titles I had imposed on myself, but because summer is nearly over. But in a valiant attempt to cram as much information into my head as I could between June 21 and September 20, I came across two little gems that I felt had some intriguing implications for those of us who want to transform America's food system.
The first was a marvelous monograph with the title of Fighting
Poverty in the U.S. and Europe: A World of Difference by
Alberto Alesina and Edward L. Glaeser. In just a tad over 200
well-referenced and eminently readable pages, these two Harvard
economists explain why most European nations have a much more
progressive attitude toward poverty and social welfare than
the United States. To put it simply, they spend significantly
more money on programs that benefit people, especially poor
people, than we do. Why? Alesina and Glaeser assemble a compelling,
if not damning, set of reasons for America's right-leaning as
opposed to Europe's left-leaning social and economic policies.
They include our intransigent racism, systems of governance
that favor power and privilege over true democracy, and this
country's size and geography.
The book's most telling statistic, at least for me, comes from the World Values Survey, which among other items, samples beliefs about poverty in 40 countries. When asked if they believe the poor are trapped in poverty, 60% of the European respondents answer yes, but only 29% of Americans believe that assertion to be true. When asked if they believe that the poor are lazy, only 26% of the Europeans answer in the affirmative while an astounding 60% of the Americans say yes. In other words, the large majority of U.S. citizens remain captive to our "up by the bootstraps" mythology, which translates directly into less funding for social welfare programs.
So what does this have to do with our food system? Fighting
Poverty makes a strong case for a causal relationship between
ideology, power, and a country's education system. Whether it
was the Horatio Alger story we read in grade school or Das
Capital that we may have read in college (even if it was
only the Cliff Notes), our beliefs are influenced by our teachers,
professors, and, most importantly, those who determine what
the curriculum will be. Call it what you will - education, indoctrination
or propaganda - all of us, for good or not, are heavily influenced
by our schooling.
According to Alesina and Glaeser, the left-leaning, Social Democrat
ideals of most European nations are supported by a centralized
educational system whose students are more likely to be exposed
to socialist-inspired ideas than U.S. students. For us, education
has always been a local affair. Books and teachers whose teachings
run counter to the interests of prominent and powerful citizens
may find themselves banned or purged (this may explain the sudden
disappearance of Miss Gifford, my 11th grade English teacher
and daughter of a trade union family, who taught us a particularly
"red" version of The Grapes of Wrath). To put Fighting
Poverty's argument succinctly, the left has been successful
in promulgating its ideas and securing political power in Europe
because it has controlled the educational system. And likewise,
the right has prevailed in the U.S. because it has controlled
the educational system, primarily at the local, public school
level. I would add that this control has been reinforced by
disparities between rich and poor school districts, which are
dependent on local property taxes.
This takes me to my second "gem", this one from a somewhat unexpected
source. In the September issue of Poetry (I read verse
to make me slightly less ornery) was a letter from this lovely
magazine's publisher, the Poetry Foundation, verifying media
reports that they had indeed received a $100 million gift from
Ruth Lilly, an event that they described as "probably without
precedent in the history of literature." Like any other small
not-for-profit organization that has suffered in relative obscurity
and near poverty for so long, they fretted over what they would
do with so much money. "With all the misery and need in the
world", they were asked, "how can you justify spending [all
that money] on a marginal art like poetry?" They also wondered
just what money could do for poetry, which by nature is an individualistic
and spiritual affair. They reasoned, I think correctly, that
society wouldn't produce more and better poets if a well-intentioned
charity sends them a check every so often. Instead, they concluded,
what poetry needs are not more poets, but more readers. "To
have great poets," quoting Walt Whitman, "there must be great
To their credit, and I think with a great deal of prescience, the Poetry Foundation will use the bulk of this magnificent gift to promote poetry in the wider culture, especially in schools and among children. It is their belief that this strategy will grow "the universe of readers who will buy books of poetry [and] bring economic as well as artistic life to the business of writing poetry."
It was at this point that it hit me: you have two Harvard economists who have scoured piles of economic, social, and political data, and an equally dedicated assemblage of readers and writers of poetry agreeing on the same thing: that it is through our children, teachers, curricula, and system of education that we may yet succeed in fostering a more empathetic and imaginative understanding of humankind. With generations of more socially liberal young people who are engaged in civic life, we will be better positioned politically to vigorously attack poverty. And likewise, students who develop an early and ardent appreciation of poetry will be better equipped to explore both the dark places of the soul and the heights of human joy, or as Shelley put it, "the poetry of life."
Now for those of you who have labored long and hard in the field of community food work, especially with children, young adults and local schools, my epiphany that the answer lies with education may elicit nothing more than a big fat "Duh!" I would submit, nevertheless, that while we have done much good work advocating for school meal programs, teaching gardening in schools, sharing the wonders of food and cooking with children, and bringing local farmers into cafeteria kitchens, we have yet to fully recognize the power of education to change society. What might the potential be of a fully engaged system of national food and nutrition education to one day transform the way our country grows, markets, prepares, and consumes food?
Imagine how easy our lives, as local food system activists would become if every child graduating from our public schools were required to demonstrate basic food competency from seed to table. What if instead of "No Child Left Behind", we would have no child left un-fed, no child left overweight, and no child left without the skills to grow, prepare, and eat healthy food. What if the average 12-year old was fully capable of dissecting a McDonald's television advertisement to pick up the scent of hidden motivators as fast as the odor of hydrogenated cooking oil? What if, for instance, we had a joint national and community commitment to use our schools to feed hungry and undernourished children no matter what the cost - a commitment we have never been able to fully embrace despite its ironclad logic. Universal free meals that meet the highest nutrition standards and offer food purchased from local farmers will pay themselves back many times over in lower health care costs, higher academic achievement, and better returns for farmers.
Furthermore, it should be a matter of national educational policy that every child understands how and where their food is produced, and that they have the requisite skills to critique those systems of production. As Jim Hightower has warned, "our kids are growing up thinking that a chicken has six legs because that's how many come in a package." Maybe, in fact, students should be required to read Jim Hightower as well as Joan Gussow, Frances Moore Lappe, Marion Nestle, Eric Schlosser, Wendell Berry, Walt Whitman and, God forbid, Marx and Engels.
I will leave it to others to devise the actual curriculum. My
syllabus would no doubt roll the eyes of educators from all
ideological persuasions. I would argue, however, that any attempt
to reform our approach to food and nutrition education must
be comprehensive and saturate every fiber of our public
education institutions. We should not succumb to the temptation
to limit our endeavors to isolated and discreet projects, as
worthy as they may be. Unfortunately, it is simply not enough
to yank the soda machines out of the schools, run a school garden
for a few weeks, ban irradiated food, establish a school breakfast
program here and there, install an organic salad bar in the
school cafeteria. Yes, we need those projects and they must
be multiplied a thousand fold. But we have to also worm, no,
not worm, bust our way into the circles of power, nationally
as well as locally. We must make our schools the breeding ground
for millions of food competent, healthy, and happy children
who retain those attributes as adults and become demanding,
knowledgeable food consumers, voters, and, in some cases, farmers,
nutritionists, chefs, policymakers, and members of the local
school boards that control the curricula. (One good step in
that direction is being taken by the Community Food Security
Coalition whose Farm to School Director, Marion Kalb, is assembling
food curricula from all over the country. This information should
be ready by January. Marion can be reached by email: email@example.com).
I'll admit that there is yet little scientific research to support my position that education will transform our food system. Perhaps the best evidence I can muster are my own two children, now 19 and 26, who, unbeknownst to them and in violation of all human subject protocols, were forced to participate in a life-long experiment directed by their diabolical father. Throughout their lives, I made them garden, learn how to cook, go to farmers' markets, "volunteer" at a CSA, and, over dinner, listen to my tirades against the oligopolistic forces of multi-national agri-business. They complained of course that they were unique among their peers in that they rarely ate at fast food restaurants, to which I would sarcastically reply that such disadvantaged status would no doubt qualify them for a federal grant. They survived, and over the course of many dinnertime sparrings and debates, arrived later in life with food attitudes and behaviors roughly proximate to mine. I'm not sure if this was due to my dazzling application of the Socratic method, my Presbyterian preachy-ness, or their forced labor in gardens and farms, but they turned out healthy in body and mind, and seemingly free of digestive disorders.
I know other parents, teachers, farmers, and food activists have a myriad of similar experiences. If by the wave of a magic wand we might all gather one day around a big campfire, we would no doubt weave a wonderful quilt of stories about food and kids that would bring a lifetime of smiles to our faces. But the times are tough and getting tougher. Obesity and poor nutrition are exacting a toll on our children and society in ways that we've only begun to imagine. Our schools and educators have been bullied for years by conservative ideologues who command our teachers to "teach to the test" and forego the arts, music, and the very essence of education, a free and open exchange of ideas. And likewise, school administrators generally do the minimum required to comply with school breakfast and lunch requirements by erecting barriers to school breakfast programs, restricting the length of lunch periods to the bare minimum, and providing relatively few healthy food options.
I think the time has come for those of us who care so fervently about the health and well being of our children to intervene more forcefully with our school boards, city and town councils, state legislatures and the U.S. Congress. At last count, well over half the states in the country have introduced or passed legislation controlling the nutritional content of food served by their public schools. The Child Nutrition Act just passed by Congress and signed by the President contains many reforms and positive new directions that will need aggressive follow up by diligent citizens at the national and local levels. These are good starts, but we must go further and we must go deeper. Quality food and nutrition education must be a significant part of the standard curriculum and integrated into the lesson plans of every subject. It can't just be an hour or two per year using free material provided by a food industry group (children now see at least that much junk food advertising every week on television). Food learning must extend from the classroom to the cafeteria to the school garden to the local farms and markets, and include the larger social, economic, and cultural context of each community.
The good news is that there are now hundreds of fine examples of food and nutrition education projects around the country. National concern over obesity is at an all time high and bookstores are crowded with titles pertaining to food, health, and agriculture. My casual conversations with friends and acquaintances over coffee or a glass of wine inevitably surface a profound level of concern about the health of their children and the role of public schools. According to market research, for instance, the number one reason that young families turn to organic food and CSAs is out of concern for the health of their children. In other words, momentum is building for fundamental change in how and what America teaches its students about food. We can longer ignore those crumpled notices about PTA and board of education meetings that we extract from our kid's backpacks. The best opportunity we have for the transformation of our nation's food system may very well lie in our own public schools. Let's respect the power of education to change society. Let's respect our power to change education.
Mark Winne is the former executive director of the Hartford
Food System and is now an independent food system consultant.
He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.