Thursday, March 25, 2010

Food Fight

The Right Wing is now attacking school gardening programs.

Caitlin Flanagan, a contributing editor and book reviewer at The Atlantic Monthly, recently targeted famous chef, Alice Waters and Edible Schoolyard (ESY), a school gardening program sponsored by the Chez Panisse Foundation, which she founded.

Waters started ESY in 1995 on a one-acre empty lot near Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School in Berkeley, CA, in order to teach kids where their food comes from. ESY and gardening programs like it have been adopted by many public schools across the country.

In her article, Flanagan objects to garden programs because they take time away from the academic subjects. This causes underprivileged students to do poorly on their standardized tests and thus subjugates them to failed, impoverished lives as adults.

Flanagan criticizes Waters for assuming the role of educator even though Waters and King Middle School Principal Neil Smith collaborated with teachers and community members to put the program together over a two-year period. Their goal was to integrate ESY into the middle school’s curriculum, culture, and food program, according to the ESY website.

Flanagan maintains that gardening programs should be held after school. Then, she chides not Waters but the California Department of Education “for allowing these gardens to hijack the curricula of so many schools.” In 2008, she says, 3,849 out of 9,000 California schools used ESY, which she regards as part of the "new Food Hysteria" that is promoted by “an agglomeration of foodies and educational reformers who are propelled by a vacuous if well-meaning ideology.” And, she says, they do this without a single study verifying that garden programs help students pass standardized tests in English and math!

Actually, Flanagan’s concern about the poor is the same kind of disingenuous patter that she also used in her book, To Hell with All That: Loving and Loathing Our Inner Housewife (2006), where she trashes the feminist movement and extols the emotional rewards and social value of the traditional housewife. She, herself, works from home, takes her children to school and cooks for her family at night—all with the help of a nanny and a housekeeper.

People like Flanagan are anathema to any discussion of the real issues. School gardening programs directly address the problem of getting children to eat good, nutritious food. This isn’t an easy thing to do and it has resulted in one out of three American children being overweight due to the fat-laden and high fructose food they eat both at home and in school. This diet is provided and promoted courtesy of the Big Ag corporations, which is all spelled out in the film, "Food, Inc."

It is notable that Waters' ESY program is complemented by other gardening programs like Will Allen’s Growing Power Youth Corps. He has been using gardens to provide children with academic experiences, teach them reading and mathematics and develop their entrepreneurial and life skills. So impressive is his success, that Allen was awarded the MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant in 2008.

Meanwhile, British chef and school food advocate Jamie Oliver has been trying to attack childhood obesity by helping Americans understand that the food they eat is killing them. He notes, for example, that four Americans die from the food they eat every 20 minutes, and that 10 percent of our health care bills ($150 billion) are obesity-related. That amount is expected to double in 10 years unless we do something to change our eating habits.

One of the astounding realities Oliver discovered is that many kids can’t even identify fruits or vegetables in their original form. That is because they are eating so much fast food, processed food, and restaurant food that they don’t know what real food looks like. A gardening program can alter this travesty.

BTW, Oliver will air “Food Revolution” on Friday, March 26 at 9 p.m. (EST) to explain his work in the “most unhealthy town in America:” Huntington, WVA, where half of its citizens are obese.

(Jamie Oliver was recognized for his efforts in teaching kids about food by winning the $100,000 TED Prize. The TED Prize is one of many programs of TED—Ideas Worth Spreading, a small nonprofit organization founded in 1984 that is devoted to bringing together people from the worlds of Technology, Entertainment, Design to converse.)

Gardens were a staple in American homes two generations ago and many people like Waters, Allen and Oliver demonstrate the wisdom in bringing them back. During World War I and II, as well as the Great Depression, American families grew backyard gardens that produced more than half their food. This is a lot of food in a small space. Some people are even raising chickens so they can obtain fresh eggs and meat.

So, Mrs. Flanagan: please don’t stop kids from learning how to garden. Their lives—and their health—depend on it. Isn’t that something precious our public schools can give them?

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