Cultivating Controversy: In Defense of an Edible Education

I was so royally peeved by Caitlin Flanagan’s hatchet job on Alice Waters and the Edible Schoolyard in her Atlantic piece “Cultivating Failure” that it’s taken me a week to simmer down enough to write about the matter with some decorum.

The snarky article takes a swing at public school gardens everywhere and it made me choke on my chard for professional and personal reasons.

Thankfully, lots of thoughtful –and less riled up — writers rushed to Alice’s defense — and called Caitlin on her strident screed, which begins with a weird fantasy sequence to set up her story. That’s fantasy folks.

If you missed the whole Flanagan flap last week (what one tweeter dubbed Garden Gate) here’s her thesis in bite-size chunks:

  • Public school gardens enslave kids in back-breaking labor and deprive them of valuable instruction time at Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School in Berkeley and elsewhere in the nation.
  • Students would be better served spending an additional 90 minutes in algebra or English class rather than tending tomatoes or cooking carrots.
  • The achievement gap that plagues so many public schools would vanish if only Alice Waters would stay in her kitchen and out of our schools.
  • School kids, especially migrant ones, who dig in the dirt will likely wind up illiterate sharecroppers.
  • Folks in the ‘hood can find healthy food if they really want to (in Compton anyway).

Crazy stuff, huh?

I was appalled by the inaccuracies and false assumptions running through Flanagan’s polemic like water through a colander full of freshly-harvested lettuce.

For well-reasoned rebuttals read what slow food chefs, food policy wonks, garden teachers, and sustainable ag advocates had to say over at Civil Eats, Serious Eats, Grist, ChewsWise, Salon, and La Vida Locavore.

Or check out the self-styled Renegade Lunch Lady, Ann Cooper on her blog. The Atlantic even gave their own Corby Kummer a chance to refute much of Flanagan’s inflammatory rantings. And Ruth Reichl spoke.

Meanwhile, my friend and fellow PTA parent Andrew Leonard, also at Salon, penned the wittiest retort with the most humorous header “Rage against the vegetable garden: Caitlan Flanagan declares war against public school foodie propaganda, exposes evil Alice Waters plot.”

Here’s a taste of what Andrew had to say: “When I dismiss Flanagan’s thesis that the time spent tending vegetable gardens is preventing disadvantaged Berkeley kids from getting the rigorous education that would enable them to successfully reach for the American dream as laughably absurd, I could be accused of having an axe to grind, or at least an organic garden row to hoe.”

While many writers weighed in, I have a unique P.O.V. to add to the mix.

For the past five years I’ve been a volunteer in the kitchen at the Edible Schoolyard. No surprise, then, that on a personal note I was completely offended by Flanagan’s mean-spirited characterizations of those of us who donate our time to the program.

When I moved to Berkeley I didn’t know much about the place, other than it was a gown town with a gourmet ghetto and a population that favored sensible footwear. I chose to get to know my new community by helping out on the school food front and Edible was an obvious place to show up.

Clearly Caitlin hasn’t spent much, if any, time in the Edible kitchen, run by head chef teacher Esther Cook since its beginnings 14 years ago.

But I have.  And I’ve seen a lot of wonderful things take place in that cooking classroom, not least of which is the making of fabulous, school-grown, organic feasts.

Here’s what I’ve witnessed:

  • Kids from diverse backgrounds working together to cook food.
  • Middle schoolers who might not excel in conventional classes discovering other talents such as knife skills or cooking chops.
  • Teenagers discussing everyday events, controversial topics, or answering a thought-provoking question over a shared meal.
  • Students absorbing a healthy dose of curriculum along with healthy food.
  • A whole lot of love. As a cynical reporter, I don’t type those words lightly.

While many kids leave the Edible kitchen classroom with recipes, culinary skills, or a new appreciation for a previously unfamiliar dish or piece of produce, they also receive a warm welcome, respect, attention, hugs, and encouragement from Esther and, until recently, former assistant chef teacher Nicole Thomas. (The very capable chef Joyce Lin-Conrad recently stepped into that slot.)

I’ve stayed as long as I have as a volunteer at Edible in large part because of how Esther and Nicole work that kitchen.

Caitlin got this right: There’s seduction going on in that room but it ain’t Alice Waters who’s doing it. Flanagan argues Alice has an “almost erotic power she wields over a certain kind of educated, professional-class, middle-aged woman (the same kind of woman who tends to light, midway through life’s journey, on school volunteerism as a locus of her fathomless energies.)” Please. Enough. Alice is an icon, so such attacks, however misguided, come with the territory.

For the record, I’ve run into the Chez Panisse founder just a few times at ESY, including when Prince Charles came to call. (I served Alice a bowl of bean soup…the woman was hungry…but that’s another story.)

This is what really put me off my food: Flanagan disses what Esther and the rest of the Edible Schoolyard staff does every day, and she’s never even met these folks.

It’s the day-to-day work of teachers like Esther, along with the garden crew Geoff, Ben, and Jonah, that engages students — and volunteers — in the world of where real food comes from.

By the way, the  folks who donate their time to ESY aren’t mostly like me (middle-class, middle-aged, white-as-whipped-cream women).  Currently I volunteer alongside a keen as mustard male chef, my previous partner was a young, Asian, female student. So much for Flanagan’s stereotypes. And, um, we do paid work too.

Oh, and if Ms. Flanagan had done her research, she would know that though Alice is the most famous figure in today’s school-garden movement she was by no means the first, not even in Berkeley, not by a long shot, to introduce kids to amaranth, sour sorrel, and kale.

Just wrong, wrong, wrong on so many counts Caitlin.

Here’s where I do see eye-to-eye with the contrarian with a capital C: California’s public schools face many challenges. I know this first hand as a parent of a 5th grader in a Berkeley public elementary.

Wanna really find ways to fix this problem? How ’bout addressing more funding, smaller classes, or doing away with the anachronistic three-month summer for starters? But blaming the state’s school woes on Alice Waters and her passion for sustainable produce is just silly.

I do need to thank you, though, Caitlin, for giving me the opportunity to write a long overdue mash letter to my friend and mentor Esther Cook.

And it’s not even Valentine’s Day yet, her favorite holiday, natch.

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24 Responses to “Cultivating Controversy: In Defense of an Edible Education”

  1. Michelle (What's Cooking) Says:

    I was shocked and horrified to read Flanagan’s article. It was amazing that she could accuse us (as educators) of wishing illiteracy and back-breaking-nearly-slave-labor upon our students. Last time I checked, there was nothing wrong with trying to teach people where their food comes from – and how it gets to their plates. Oh yeah – and it DOES make a difference in our children’s eating habits (and in case she forgot, we are in the midst of an insane obesity epidemic.) ‘nough said.

  2. Alexandra Says:

    I have not read this article and had not heard about this controversy, so thank you for writing about it. I believe a program like the one you describe is very worthwhile. If something similar had been available in my town, I would have signed up my children.

  3. Frugal Kiwi Says:

    I read the article after your last post that mentioned it. I’m glad you’ve written a rebuttal from the coal face.

  4. Gretchen Says:

    You sum up her (thin) argument and all its holes well. I’d love to see The Atlantic copy editors do as well next time!

  5. Christine Says:

    It was so satisfying to read your post! Thank you so much for your rebuttal – I appreciate how thoroughly you dissect her thin argument and at the same time, tell us what you’ve seen and what your experience has been.

  6. Ruth Pennebaker Says:

    Wherever there’s a controversy like this, you can usually find Caitlin Flanagan or Katie Roiphe firing the salvos.

  7. Almost Slowfood Says:

    Nice reply! I too was just seething when I read it and kinda thought it must be a joke. She seemed so very narrow-minded and uninformed. Oh well, them’s the breaks, but so glad you and so many others are rebutting her.

  8. Sheryl Says:

    Congratulations to you on a most wonderful and passionate post! How totally ridiculous Flanagan is to make these claims. You’re so right – it’s so much more than just about the food that enriches these kids’ lives. And what in the world is wrong with teaching cooperation, support, hard work, health and self-worthiness through food?

  9. Stefhen Says:

    I thought that the main point of the article was this quote:

    “there’s nothing wrong with kids getting together after school and working on a garden; that’s very nice. But when it becomes the center of everything—as it usually does—it’s absurd. The only question in education reform that’s worth anything is this: What are you doing to prepare these kids for college?”

    I think that is what this article was about, most are irritated by the tone of the article itself, but isn’t this above a valid point?

    • Sarah Henry Says:

      Hi Stefhen,

      You do raise a valid point. But any parent whose child attends MLK Middle School would laugh if someone suggested that the Edible Schoolyard “is the center of everything” at that school.

      It is yet another absurd and inaccurate characterization of what’s going on there.

      And if Ms. Flanagan had bothered to stop by, instead of phoning it in, she would have learned that herself.

  10. Susan Says:

    There are some many interdisciplinary ways to incorporate learning into a program like Edible Education. I would have loved something like this as a kid, because unfortunately (like many of us) I grew up on a diet of processed foods and didn’t really learn how to cook or appreciate fresh produce until I was out of college.

  11. Meredith Resnick - The Writer's [Inner] Journey Says:

    Fabulous piece here, Sarah.

  12. Jennifer Margulis Says:

    I don’t understand why snark sells or why people want to read critiques and failures more than success. Thanks for debunking some of it!

  13. Liz Says:

    Thank you for addressing and rebutting yet another of Flanagan’s ridiculosities. She is a purposefully inflammatory attention seeker and she’s boring. As a Los Angeles ex-inner city teacher you have given me food for thought in terms of volunteerism. Are there any programs in LA like Edible Schoolyard?

    • Sarah Henry Says:

      Hi Liz,

      You’re not alone in your thinking.

      As for school gardens in L.A., check out a great roundup of programs around the country by Adriana Velez for Civil Eats.

      She includes the 24th Street Schoolyard Garden in an area of L.A. that used to be a food desert.

      Apparently the thriving edible garden has an outdoor kitchen with a pitfire pizza oven.

      Read more here: http://civileats.com/2010/01/19/school-gardens-across-the-nation/

  14. Serena Beltz Says:

    I found out about the article via the Purple Asparagus January newsletter and was just dumbfounded by the snarky attitude of the writer. I’ve lived and gone to school in Berkeley and it really would have behooved Ms. Flanagan to visit the site she so distains before writing about it.

    One key thing she missed about Alice Waters–the chef is also a Montessori trained teacher so there is that aspect behind the garden–hands on practical education outside the classroom–life skills that can enhance any traditional curriculum.

    • Sarah Henry Says:

      Hi Serena,

      Glad you found your way here. You raise a good point about Alice’s Montessori teaching background and that hands-on approach is evident in every aspect of the Edible Schoolyard program.

  15. Diana Says:

    It seems that Ms. Flanagan has appointed herself as a spokesperson for the dispossessed. Perhaps she should let them speak for themselves.

    My father was five when his farming family lost their land in the Great Depression; they became migrant workers and sharecroppers– the poorest of the poor in rural Georgia.

    By age six, he would work in the fields every day after school until sundown. Some years later, he went to college with the aid of the GI bill and become a very successful systems analyst and inventor — someone that Flanagan might think would never want to lift another hoe again as long as he lived.

    But actually, one of the great pleasures of my father’s life (besides his family) was his enormous organic garden. He grew 20 types of vegetables, planted apple trees, strawberries, and blueberry bushes, and canned the surplus for the winter.

    He passed on that love of gardening to us, and he would have loved the Edible Schoolyard. How I wish he were here to write a response!

    • Sarah Henry Says:

      So well said, Diana.

      Thank you for such a personal, poignant, and on point response to Ms. Flanagan’s account.

      You vividly make the case for your father’s enduring connection to the land.

      I’m sure he would be proud of you.

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