A Healthy Constitution: Nutrition, Our Kids, and Democracy

I was moved by the way Morgan Spurlock framed a narrow long-distance shot
down the corridor of a Beckley, West Virginia, middle school in his
outstanding 2004 film, Super Size Me. The film is about the toll
that fast and processed food takes on all of us. Clearly visible in the
background of this particular shot were dozens of students, many of whom
were overweight.

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that Beckley's cafeteria offers
only processed food, which is high in fat, sodium and sugar and of very
little nutritional value.

Contrast this with the Central Alternative High School in Appleton,
Wisconsin. The school serves troubled youth, but teachers, parents and
administrators found a way to turn things around; and when they did,
discipline problems dropped sharply. Their secret? Instead of the usual
processed meals, the school cafeteria offers fresh, locally grown,
low-fat, low-sugar alternatives. The healthier meals are delicious. The
students love them. They perform better in class and don't get sick as
often.

We are learning that when schools serve healthier meals, they solve
serious educational and health-related problems. But what's missing from
the national conversation about school lunch reform is the opportunity
to use food to teach values that are central to democracy. Better food
isn't just about test scores, health and discipline. It is about
preparing students for the responsibilities of citizenship.

That's why we need to talk about edible education, not just school lunch
reform. Edible education is a radical yet common-sense approach to
teaching that integrates classroom instruction, school lunch, cooking
and gardening into the studies of math, science, history and reading.

Edible education involves not only teaching children about where food
comes from and how it is produced but giving them responsibilities in
the school garden and kitchen. Students literally enjoy the fruits of
their labor when the food they grow is served in healthy, delicious
lunches that they can help prepare.

I learned this firsthand through the Chez Panisse Foundation--the
organization I helped create to inspire a network of food activists
around the world with edible education programs in their own
communities. Here in Berkeley, I see children in our edible education
program learn about responsibility, sharing and stewardship and become
more connected to themselves and their peers. In the process, they come
to embody the most important values of citizenship.

Listen to what one student named Charlotte has to say: "Next we went
from the blue corn to the sweet corn and each picked an ear to grill. I
must say it tasted really good, even without butter." Or Mati: "I think
cleaning up is as important as eating. Cleaning up is sort of fun. And
we can't just leave it for the teachers, because we made the mess." Or
Jose: "I remember the first time I came to the kitchen. I was afraid to
do anything. But then I realized, this is my kitchen. So then I started
to enjoy it."

Charlotte, Mati and Jose are learning about so much more than lunch.
They're learning that farmers depend on the land; we depend on farmers;
and our nation depends on all of us. That cooperation with one another
is necessary to nurture the community. And that, by setting the table
for one another, we also take care of ourselves. School should be the
place where we build democracy, not just by teaching about the
Constitution but by becoming connected to our communities and the land
in more meaningful ways.

In 1785, Thomas Jefferson declared that "Cultivators of the earth are
the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most
independent, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their country and
wedded to its liberty and interests by the most lasting bonds."

I believe he was right. The school cafeteria, kitchen and garden, like
the town square, can and should be the place where we plant and nourish
the values that guide our democracy. We need to join a delicious
revolution that can reconnect our children to the table and to what it
means to be a steward. This is the picture of a caring society, and this
is the promise of edible education.

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