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Imagine a world where students could plant, harvest and cultivate the foods they eat in their school cafeterias.

By Michael Ableman Posted Jan 28, 2009

Recently, the school district spent $150,000 on a computer system to manage the inflow of anonymous food from distant sources. But it doesn’t require a computer to figure out that young people need whole food — food that tastes better because it’s grown in living soil and harvested locally, food that makes clear the relationship between human health and the health of the Earth. It doesn’t require a computer to tell us that by feeding young people the best, not just the cheapest, we are in effect feeding and nourishing our own future.

Why shouldn’t students be eating the sweet French carrots, the Clementine mandarins, the year-round salad greens, the radishes and beets and avocados that grow so near the school? How difficult would it be to replace nachos with real corn on the cob? How much more time and expense would be required to serve farm-fresh eggs, or ripe strawberries, or bean or vegetable soups and stew produced with real local ingredients? How difficult would it be to spend less on hardware and more on providing professional development so that cafeteria staff can help students make connections between the food they eat and the farms where it’s grown?

Imagine if students could plant, harvest, and cultivate the very foods that later appear in their lunch at the cafeteria. Shouldn’t all 700 students at Goleta Valley Junior High be required, as part of their education, to develop a relationship with the farm in order to understand the connections between soil life and their own life — between taste and health?

For more than twenty years I have hosted local students on the farm, walking and grazing from the fields with them, allowing them to settle into a different rhythm for an hour or two. I always take a few moments to get to know them, to ask a few simple questions before we begin; How many of you live on farms, how many have ever visited one, what did you eat for breakfast? Over the years I have seen a dramatic shift in young people’s responses and in their relationship to food and the land.

It used to be that a handful in every group lived on farms; most had at least visited one. Their breakfast might have included an egg or a piece of fruit or bread, or even some whole grain. Now it is rare to find a kid who lives on a farm, or has even visited one. Many have not had breakfast, and those who have often tell me that it consisted of a granola bar, a corn dog, or even a can of Coke.

It is not just kids’ answers that tell me that something has changed. When young people come to the farm, I look at each of them, study them the way I do the farm’s soil and plants and trees, try to get a feel for how they are doing. These days, many are overweight; they seem to lack focus and have difficulty being still. Our task with our young visitors is different now, our goals very basic. We want to provide them with something real to eat — a fresh carrot or strawberry — and an hour or two outside of the walls of the classroom, a chance to slow down and an opportunity to touch the Earth for just one moment and to be calmed and settled by it. Change, I have to remind myself, comes slowly and incrementally.

Michael Ableman is a farmer, educator, and founder and executive director of the Center for Urban Agriculture at Fairview Gardens in Goleta, California. The Center is based on one of the oldest organic farms in California, where Ableman farmed from 1981 to 2001. He is the author and photographer of From the Good Earth (Abrams, 1993) and On Good Land (Chronicle Books, 1998) and the subject of the PBS national broadcast Beyond Organic, narrated by Meryl Streep. Ableman is currently farming a small piece of land in British Columbia and is at work on a new book and PBS film profiling innovative farmers across North America.

This essay is part of Thinking outside the Lunchbox, an ongoing series of essays connected to the Center for Ecoliteracy’s Rethinking School Lunch program. Read all the essays at www.ecoliteracy.org

© Copyright 2007 Center for Ecoliteracy. All rights reserved. Printed with permission.

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