Archive for the ‘kids & food’ Category

What’s On Your Plate? Food for Thought for All Ages

March 31, 2010

While we’re on the subject of kids, school, and food this week, here’s a shout out for a film I’m going to have to find room for on my top ten food documentaries list.

What’s On Your Plate? features two New York City middle school students, Sadie Rain Hope-Gund and Safiyah Kai Russell Riddle, taking viewers on a food tour that’s as entertaining as it is educational as they set out on a mission to figure out where their meals come from.

The 76-minute film is part of the current Whole Foods Let’s Retake Our Plates film series and has run on Discovery Channel’s Planet Green. Click here for screenings and watch a trailer here.

This doco is directed by veteran social justice film-maker Catherine Gund, mom to one of the budding food activists. The dynamic diet-conscious duo spend a year in front of the camera as they explore their place in the food chain, and ask questions about where the food they eat comes from, how it’s grown, and how far it travels from the farm to their fork.

Pitching this flick to a Hollywood agent you’d sum it up as two urban Nancy Drews meets Food, Inc., as The Atlantic did.

The girl guides talk to friends, family, food activists, farmers, food sellers — and each other — as they investigate issues around health, environment, nutrition, food security, and access. The interviews with politicians and public school food officials are classic. The break beat poet is fresh and funky.

It’s packed with so many teachable moments in bite-sized bits that I suspect it will engage many kids in a conversation about eating. And the tone is matter-of-fact and non-judgmental. We learn Sadie has genetically-linked high cholesterol controlled by diet, and that Safiyah’s family is vegetarian.

On a recent tour of a middle school in my neck of the woods, I saw a sign for a class called “What’s On Your Plate?” and I wonder if it’s based on the film’s 64-page companion curriculum guide on school food, health and access, and local food. (It’s spring break in Berkeley this week, so I can’t confirm).

I hope so. What’s On Your Plate? is a terrific teaching tool, told in the cadence of 11-year-old kids. Pretty savvy and sophisticated multi-racial city kids with deep connections on the food front. But kids nonetheless. Concepts like high fructose corn syrup get equal billing with a popular edible food-like product known as Funyuns.

The film works best when we meet people the tweens find organically. Like the folks who front the CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) in their area, the Latino Angel family farmers, who struggle to make a living on the land in upstate New York, and the school dad who had a heart attack that proved a wake-up call for his family’s eating habits.

I was less jazzed to see the typical talking heads of the good food movement. But I’m a somewhat jaded adult and many kids won’t know Anna Lappe and Bryant Terry, both of whom, to be fair, bring important ideas to the table.

The film ends, fittingly, with a wrap party where food plays a central role. There’s even cute animation and cool music too.

Less scary than Food, Inc., less sensational than Food Revolution, and less sad than both these edible exposes, What’s On Your Plate? does what children have always done best. It offers hope, even in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.

Who knew you could grow raspberries in a window box in Manhattan?  You can! The kids even help the Angel family organize a CSA to fund the farm. Clearly, the youngest generation of edible entrepreneurs can bring about change in their communities.

A good choice for family movie night, I’m looking forward to watching it with my own 11 year old. I know he’s going to love that school science experiment involving marshmallows, walnuts, and those Funyuns.

Playful, positive, personal, and political without being preachy, What’s On Your Plate? is worth watching. So kudos to the kids and the movie-making mom, who made a wise decision to let the children tell the story.

Photos: Courtesy Aubin Pictures

Jamie Oliver: School Food Revolution or Reality TV Rubbish?

March 29, 2010


It’s time to talk about the Limey lad’s Appalachian invasion.

Unless you’ve had your head in a school lunch garbage bin for the last week surely you know Brit wonder boy Jamie Oliver has landed on American shores to save our children from the food we feed them.

The kind of food mind, the mopped-topped megastar tells us, that is killing our kids — or at least leading them to an early grave.

In case you missed him on Oprah, Letterman, or Hockenberry, Jamie jetted into Huntington, West Virginia, to film Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution for ABC. (You can catch the first two episodes on Hulu.)

The six-part series is a hybrid of two similar programs Oliver fronted in England, Jamie’s School Dinners and Jamie’s Ministry of Food, the former resulted in sweeping school lunch reform, though even the mastermind himself admits it’s not yet a resounding success.

Stylistically the shows couldn’t be more different, if reflective of their respective cultures. Think British public television documentary versus American network TV reality pap. Food Revolution is produced by American Idol‘s Ryan Seacrest.

Why West Virginia? Two years ago Huntington got gonged as the country’s unhealthiest area, courtesy of CDC data. That means fattest. Let’s not sugar coat things, most obese, and sickest on such measures as heart disease and diabetes. But Huntington is just the first stop in Oliver’s national nutrition mission. He wants nothing short of radical reform on Americans’ plates.

The celebrity chef favors fresh food from scratch or stripping food down to its bare essentials, as he likes to say, (hence his Naked Chef nickname), versus reheated edible food products. (Did you see the footage of the packaged “mashed potato pearls” served at school? Scary stuff.)

His premise is, as you might expect, a simple one. If you teach people to cook a handful of dishes, you’ll get them hooked on healthy eating.

Locals chafe at the TED prize award-winner‘s campaign for change. The cultural disconnects are cringe worthy. The thirtysomething refers to the middle-aged school cafeteria staff as “lunch ladies,”  “darlin'” and “sweetheart”. Jamie is gobsmacked that school kids eat pizza for breakfast. For breakfast! And aren’t given knives and forks to eat their food at lunch. Those American barbarians!

Here’s what I know: The show is entertaining, if scripted, garnered good ratings, and generated big buzz. It’s prime fodder on foodie listservs, such as the Association for the Study of Food and Society‘s, where one academic wag likened canned and processed food to masturbation. (“It’s easy, convenient and gets the job done….but I’m guessing most people, given the opportunity, would prefer the messy, complicated, time-consuming, delightful option of the real thing.”)

But I digress. Stripped of its sensationalism, Food Revolution is simply sad. There’s the pastor flicking through photos of townsfolk he’s buried prematurely due to dietary decisions. There’s the super-sized family fueled only on fat-fryer food. There are school kids who eat chicken nuggets for lunch AND dinner and can’t identify ANY fresh vegetables when Jamie quizzes them in class.

Here’s what I’m not sure of: Once Oliver wings his way home to his own family, will his food revolution make any difference to those he set out to help Stateside? Or will things stay the same here while the self-described hyperactive, dyslexic chef jumps to his next pet project under the umbrella of his multimillion dollar international food emporium?

Here’s what I want to find out: What do American school food advocates such as, oh, I don’t know, Michelle Obama, Alice Waters, and Ann Cooper, for starters, think about a foreigner getting his hands dirty in the American school food debate?

Debra Eschmeyer of the National Farm to School Network noted in a recent Civil Eats story that absent from Food Revolution to date is any acknowledgment of the homegrown edible educational experiments happening around the country. Responding to such criticism, the program’s producers have encouraged viewers to share video of local food heroes here.

Few can argue with the fact that Jamie is cooking up trouble at a critical time.  Congress is considering legislation to toughen rules that regulate school lunch and increase funding for better food. The First Lady just launched her Let’s Move initiative. A school teacher in middle America is garnering gobs of interest for her blog documenting the horrors of U.S. school lunch.

Jamie Oliver reminds me a bit of another successful British TV export. Bob the Builder anyone? Parents may recall the plucky truck driver’s catchphrase: Can we do it? Yes we can!

So, what say you readers: Can the cheeky British chef take on American agribusiness behemoths whose food products fill school freezers across this great land and tackle Byzantine government bureaucracy that threatens to stymie school lunch reform — not to mention address most Americans’ undying love affair with fast food?

Will Jamie Oliver win the Battle of the Bulge?

And can the school food revolution be televised?

Stay tuned.

An Edible Education in Thailand

March 3, 2010

Kyle Cornforth was up for a challenge. So when the founder of a cooking school in the outskirts of Chiang Mai asked Kyle, who was working at the Edible Schoolyard at the time, if she’d like to come on board as director of The Prem Organic Cooking Academy and Farm, she leapt at the chance. She wanted to share what she’d learned about local, sustainable, organic cooking at a public school in north Berkeley with students and staff at an international school in northern Thailand.

So last summer, Kyle and her husband Jay, a teacher at Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School in Berkeley where Edible is based (the two actually met in the garden, cue a chorus of awws), packed their bags and headed off on an adventure in Asia with their daughter Zorah.

“It was an opportunity we just couldn’t pass up as a family,” says Kyle via video Skype. (Full disclosure: We met at Edible, where I’m a volunteer.)

“Professionally, it was also a privilege to work with teachers and children from other parts of the world,” Kyle adds. “We knew it would be uncomfortable at times. We were pretty set in our ways in our lovely little Berkeley life. We thought it would be good for us.”

That’s proven to be the case. Going to live in another continent sounds super cool. And, for the most part, it is. Kyle loves the liveliness, colors, sounds, smells, sights, and tastes of Thailand. She even loves that simply getting into town, about 45 minutes away, is its own adventure.

But as anyone who has ever done it will tell you, moving out of your comfort zone, setting up shop in another country, and navigating an unfamiliar culture is not without its challenges.

Even something as seemingly banal as the weather can take time to get used to. Kyle finds the heat and humidity in Chiang Mai tough after the temperate, foggy Bay Area.

She pines for simple foods from far away. (She wrote a lovely blog post about how much she missed her daily bread.)

A soft-spoken woman with a kind demeanor, Kyle finds it incongruous that at times she feels like the loud, brash, opinionated American. Her gentle but direct manner and problem-solving approach doesn’t always serve her well here — it can offend — and so she’s figured out how to communicate to better suit local tastes.

The family is thriving in their temporary Thai home. Kyle, 30, describes her daughter and husband as being “Thai in their past lives,” pointing out, as evidence, that they happily eat rice for breakfast.

Kyle is learning about the principles behind traditional Thai cooking, with its emphasis on food as medicine.  And its key flavors: sweet, salty, buttery, bland, astringent, bitter, spicy, cool, and sour.

She says she has adopted a new, favorite way of thinking about meal planning, the Thai concept known as grom grawm or contrast, surprise, and balance.

She’s on a personal mission to perfect making Khao Soy, a popular street dish, comprised of crispy egg noodles, pickled cabbage, shallots, lime, meat, curry sauce, and coconut milk.

And she is following the advice of a wise friend who encouraged her “to go slow and go deep,” in her new environment. So she makes a point of frequenting the same vendors at local markets or street stalls, developing relationships with these people and their food as she goes.

Founded in 2008 by the San Diego restauranteur Su-Mei Yu, the Prem academy teaches traditional Thai cooking and farming techniques to visiting school kids from international schools around the globe.

Yu grew up in Bangkok, moved to the U.S. as a teen, and opened the first Thai restaurant in San Diego some 25 years ago. The cookbook author wants to help preserve and pass on the customs she learned as a young child, both in the kitchen and on the land.

Yu discovered that children growing up in cities in Thailand — and other Asian nations –often have little knowledge about where food comes from or how to cook, not unlike many American children.

Yu is friends with Mom Luang Tridhosyuth Devakul, the founder of the Prem Tinsulanonda International School (known as the Prem Center), who planted a vast organic garden that was so prolific it wasn’t long before the farm was feeding students at the K-12 boarding school. Adding the cooking academy felt like a natural progression.

At Prem, students learn how to prepare authentic Thai food using traditional tools.

They make coconut milk using a little wooden stool with a sharp blade known as a kratai. They also use a mortar and pestle to grind spices for curries.

Kyle is expanding the program’s reach. Prem has begun offering intensive cooking classes aimed at adult travelers interested in experiencing real Thai cuisine. Participants explore Thai flavors with local chefs and make seasonal dishes using fresh organic ingredients such as Kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass, galangal, and sweet basil all harvested from the Prem Academy’s garden.  Coconut, papaya, and bananas, are grown on site as well.

The program combines cooking and culture: Participants prepare alms trays, or offerings of food, to Buddhist monks at a nearby temple. Longer courses offer the chance to cook in local homes and meet village elders.

The classes are starting to find an audience.

This month AFAR includes Prem in a round-up of cooking schools around the world.

Last year Travel and Leisure featured a profile of the program by Karen Coates, who blogs beautifully on culinary travels at Rambling Spoon.

Kyle looks forward to bringing back a repertoire of Thai recipes to try out on family and friends in the Bay Area.

Below, she shares a simple noodle dish popular in northern Thailand.

Prem chef teacher Khun Nid learned this recipe from her mother.

It is considered a well-balanced, one dish meal.

In keeping with Thai principles it has salty, sweet, spicy, crunchy, and soft tastes and textures.

Enjoy.

Photos: Courtesy of Cornhens in Thailand

Pad Kanom Jeen

Northern Thai Style Rice Vermicelli

Makes 1- 2 servings

Ingredients:

2 cups room temperature rice vermicelli noodles, cooked

(can substitute soba, somen, or thin egg noodles)

1 teaspoon dark soy sauce

1 tablespoon soy sauce

1 tablespoon sugar

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1 tablespoon minced garlic

1 tablespoon thinly sliced fresh red chili

2 stalks green onion, thinly sliced across

2 to 3 stalks cilantro, minced

Condiments:

1 egg

½ cup vegetable oil

1 slice firm tofu (1/4 by 3 inches), sliced into eighths

a handful fresh bean sprouts

¼ teaspoon dried chili powder (more or less according to taste)

Method:

1. Put the rice vermicelli in a mixing bowl and toss gently with the soy sauces to combine, being careful to not break up the noodle strands.

2. Sprinkle the sugar over the noodles and mix again. Set aside.

3. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a wok over medium-low heat. Wait for 30 seconds and add the garlic.

4. Stir-fry garlic until golden and then add the noodles. Stir to mix until hot and fragrant.

5. Add the chili and stir to mix for about a minute.

6. Transfer to a serving plate.

7. Garnish the top of the noodles with green onion and cilantro.

Preparing the condiments:

1. Crack the egg into a small mixing bowl and beat it with a fork.

2. Add 1 tablespoon of the oil in a wok and heat over medium-low heat.

3. Spread and swirl the oil around the wok. Heat until hot, about 30 seconds.

4. Beat the egg vigorously and add to the hot oil. Swirl around into a thin sheet.

5. Carefully flip the egg over to cook other side when the bottom is slightly brown and the top congealed.

6. Transfer to a plate to cool once both sides are cooked.

7. Roll into a tight cylinder and slice across into thin strands. Set aside.

8. Add the rest of the oil to the wok, on medium-low heat.

9. Wait for a minute or so until the oil begins to smoke.

10. Add the tofu and deep-fry until crispy and golden, about 2 to 3 minutes.

11. Transfer to a plate lined with paper towels.

12. Surround the noodles with mounds of omelet strands, crispy tofu, bean sprouts, and dried chili powder and serve.


Fed Up with School Lunch: The Feds Join The Fray

February 9, 2010

Many kids in the U.S. eat half their daily calories at school.

And what a sad, super-size me state of affairs that is in most parts of the country.

Highly processed and packaged food laden with sugar, fat, and salt fill in for whole grains, fruit & veg, and protein — you know, the kind of nutrients that might actually help a child learn and stay lean.

Loads of folks have been working their buns off to try and make schools a healthier place for children to eat. Check out Ann Cooper, the self-styled Renegade Lunch Lady, who revamped school lunch programs in Harlem, NY, Berkeley, CA, and now Boulder, CO. Or visit Slow Food U.S.A.’s Time For Lunch Campaign, or Susan Rubin’s Better School Food.

And yes, for the record, we know we’re spoiled here in Berkeley with our made from scratch, fresh ingredients lunch menu. We also know what’s going on here is the exception, not the rule.

Maybe that can change. Today, as part of the federal government’s “Let’s Move” launch, the First Lady’s much buzzed about campaign against childhood obesity, Michelle Obama announced plans for a renewed effort to raise the quality of school food, feed more kids, and feed them better.

White House watchers know that the administration recently called for an additional $10 billion over 10 years to improve school food and increase participation in school nutrition programs. Congress must green-light this request, of course, before it’s a reality.

More money is needed, and lots of it, but new thinking about what nourishment looks like at lunch is necessary, too. Think less processed, packaged edible food-like substances and more fresh, real food.

These government efforts may seem like too little too late to critics. But they can’t come soon enough for people like Mrs. Q, the anonymous school teacher from an unnamed Illinois public school who has vowed to eat the same school lunch offered to her students throughout 2010.

Granted, Fed Up: The School Lunch Project sounds like another food blog gimmick. Not so. This teacher has hit on a simple but surefire way to draw attention to the deplorable state of school lunch in her workplace, one bad lunch at a time. And she’s perfectly positioned to serve up the inside scoop.

She believes a lousy school lunch has many downsides for kids who:

  • can’t learn as poor quality food doesn’t fuel their bodies and brains
  • feel bad in their bodies after eating this junk food
  • may surmise that no one cares enough to stop feeding them garbage

Mrs. Q wants to keep a low profile; she fears losing her job if she’s outed. But I’ll check in with her towards the end of the school year to find out what conclusions she draws from her school food experiment. For now, you can read her insightful interview with Robin Shreeves at Mother Nature News.

While it’s unlikely that this presumably underpaid teacher will make a small fortune on a book deal or movie rights for her efforts on behalf of school kids, she may get an invite to the White House.

So might Ed Bruske, who could likely walk over, since he hails from D.C. The Slow Cook blogger recently spent a week in an elementary-school kitchen in the nation’s capitol–and it’s not a pretty picture there either.

Bruske documents a daily menu of industrialized school food that’s cheap, fast, and easy to dole out to the masses. Tellingly, kitchen staff spend more time cleaning up and serving than they do prepping or cooking food, writes the former Washington Post reporter in the first of his six-part series.

He also recounts witnessing such edible atrocities as so-called scrambled eggs, “a manufactured product with 11 different ingredients cooked in a factory in Minnesota and delivered 1,100 miles frozen in plastic bags to the District of Columbia.”

Clearly, the Feds have their work cut out for them. Clearly, good folks are keeping tabs on them. Clearly, school lunch made in the U.S.A. needs a massive makeover.

In France, Italy, and Japan, and elsewhere around the globe, children do eat well at midday, notes Deborah Lehmann at School Lunch Talk. Even some students here do, as this child tucking into salad in a New York City school illustrates.

Here’s the big ask: Can Michelle Obama and crew address childhood obesity, school lunch, and food security in all of the communities across the U.S.?

Can she do it?

The survival, literally, of the next generation of American kids may well depend on it.

What say you?

Photo: Chicago school lunch: Corn chips with cheese sauce, French fries, ketchup, pears in syrup, & chocolate milk (Source: American Lunchroom: What Our Kids Are Eating at School: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly)

Bottom Photo: New York school lunch salad eater by Kate Adamick

Sprouts Cooking Club: Growing the Next Generation of Chefs

February 1, 2010

It took a teenager from Wyomissing, PA who had never heard of Alice Waters to figure out what was missing on the culinary scene in Berkeley.

When Karen Rogers landed at UC Berkeley in 2005 she couldn’t believe that there wasn’t a cooking club on campus.  So she started one.

But the Cal Cooking Club wasn’t just about student potlucks, recipe exchanges, and cook outs. Drawing on her success in high school with a similar program she spearheaded, Karen made it her mission to forge relationships with local chefs. (Presumably she learned who Alice was pretty quickly.)  She invited culinary professionals on campus to teach cooking classes and took club members into local kitchen restaurants.

She even arranged a “Big Cook-off” between Cal and Stanford, tapping into the simmering rivalry between the schools. (Cal prevailed at the pots.)

Today, the culinary arts club has some 600 members, making it one of the largest clubs on campus, according to Karen, who graduated last year and resigned from presiding over the group in 2007 to focus on launching a local food-oriented business.

And what a thriving biz it is. While still in school, the international business major kicked off Culinary Kids (which has since morphed into Sprouts Cooking Club) for the next generation of chefs in Berkeley and beyond.

The organization allows Karen, 23, to pursue her passion for good food and fills another void in the Gourmet Ghetto’s food chain by offering young children the opportunity to cook real food with real chefs in real kitchens. “I enjoy working with kids because of their raw enthusiasm, open-mindedness, and fascination with food,” she says.

Not surprisingly, her classes fill quickly. For the past three summers, Karen has corralled young campers, ages 7 to 13, in and out of some of the fanciest restaurant kitchens in the Bay Area, including Chez Panisse, Boulevard, and Slanted Door. And these kids aren’t just baking cookies. They’ve made butternut squash ravioli with chef Cindy Deetz at Venezia, whipped up hummus at La Mediterranee, and learned how to “cook” raw at Cafe Gratitude, where they made an unbaked avocado chocolate cake.

You can read about the culinary adventures of one of her students, Sam Siegel, in an earlier post.

Prior to graduation, Karen spent time abroad, living in France and Japan; she also found time to squeeze in an internship at Chez Panisse.  In all three locations she worked in restaurant kitchens where the emphasis was on eating locally-sourced food cooked from scratch. She’s also volunteered on a farm in Ecuador, taken cooking classes in Peru, and toured coffee farms in Costa Rica to learn about fair trade and organic farming. These experiences, coupled with her family background — at one time her mom ground her own wheat and made bread for the family of 9 — informs the slow-food, sustainable, authentic cooking sensibilities she hopes to pass on to her young charges.

Sprouts receives sponsorship from Whole Foods, Strauss Creamery, and Alter Eco Fair Trade.  The group also partners with Kaiser Permanente, offering healthy meals cooking series targeting employees and their families. As a non-profit, Karen reaches out to a diverse group of kids in the community; she offers scholarships to families in need for camps and series classes, teaches cooking in Oakland schools and at the Senaca Center, a live-in treatment facility for emotionally-challenged children in Concord.

This spring, Sprouts will take its first international culinary tour, to Parisian Cyril Guignard’s country estate and historic chateau for seven days of cooking classes, authentic French cuisine, and provincial living. (Um, can I come?)

The trip to France is intended to give children and their parents first-hand experience in the culinary and cultural mores of another corner of the globe. “People in France don’t have big refrigerators or large supermarkets,” Karen notes. “Instead, they regularly visit their patisserie, charcuterie, and market and have relationships with the people who grow or make their food. It’s a completely different approach to the culinary arts that I want to expose the kids to.”

Accompanying her on this culinary tour is Jed Cote, sous chef of Pizzaiolo, and former line cook at Chez Panisse, who is very familiar with Provencale French cooking and rustic Italian fare but has never left the country. Armed with his recently acquired passport, Jed, 32, is keen to convey to the kids the pleasure of cooking, along with teaching them knife skills and how to make the perfect crepe.

Jed, who has a degree in criminology, planned on becoming an FBI agent, until every single person he interviewed who chose that line of work told him they regretted their decision. “So many people hate what they do. I think it’s important for children to see an adult who loves what he does,” he says. “I get up every day and go to a job that I love. I think that’s a really important message for children to learn.”

At a benefit brunch for Sprouts’ scholarship fund yesterday at Pizzaiolo, parent Czarina Good explained why she was taking her three children to France. “I see it as part of their education,” says Czarina, originally from the Philippines, whose children attend Chinese school. “I want my children to grow up knowing about all the different people and places of the world and food is a wonderful way to do that.”

For upcoming class series and information on summer camps (heads up: these fill fast), visit the Sprouts Cooking Club website.

Photo of Karen Rogers: Graham Bradley

Photo of Karen with kids: Courtesy Karen Rogers

Cultivating Controversy: In Defense of an Edible Education

January 18, 2010

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.

School Produce Stand Feeds Families in Oakland

January 12, 2010

Care to sample a strawberry or scoop up salad greens for supper when you pick up your child from school?

Since school went back last September you can do just that every Tuesday at Glenview Elementary School in Oakland, California.

Led by garden coordinator and parent Delana Toler, a small core of volunteers — some without kids at the school — work a PTA-initiated produce stand for two hours after classes are dismissed in the front yard of this public school, which serves a diverse group of families in the foothills east of Lake Merritt.

Unlike Windrush School farm stand profiled here previously, Glenview’s goal isn’t to raise school funds by selling produce. Instead, this stand serves simply to educate parents, students, and staff about seasonal, organic fruits and vegetables, and offer such produce at competitive prices, thanks to the generosity of Farmer Joe’s, a natural grocery store in the community, which supplies the stand at close to cost. (The grocer has also donated a greenhouse for the school garden.)

Parent volunteer Mark Halmi mans a tasting table to encourage folks to try unfamiliar produce. Last week Mark sauteed Swiss chard with garlic and raisins; a recent tasting made purple potato converts out of many pupils and their parents.

There’s a free piece of fruit to any child who comes equipped with a reusable tote to take produce home. (The PTA received a grant to distribute a Glenview produce bag, complete with an eye-catching mosaic design, above, to every child in the school.) Last-minute gleaners snap up whatever produce is left after most folks have long gone home.

On a visit last Tuesday I picked up a punnet of raspberries for $3.89 (they currently retail for $6.99 at my local grocer), along with rainbow chard, kiwi fruit, Arkansas black apples, and French fingerlings. Delighted that my son has recently discovered potatoes, these creamy tubers were delicious thinly sliced, sauteed & seasoned.

Depending on the season and the variety of local, organic produce available, Delana spends between $300 and $500 to stock the stand each week. And the better part of her Tuesday is consumed with stand duties.

Delana grew up on a farm in Oregon; pretty much everything the family ate came off their land. She sees the school’s vegetable garden and produce stand as a way for kids in more urban settings, including her daughter Dylan, to connect with food and where it comes from.

On a recent visit one teacher opened a window and called out: “I’m ready for you to take my order.” If principal Deitra Atkins can’t stop by the tasting table a sample is delivered to her office. Parents and kids cruise pass as school gets out with bags in tow.

Glenview is one of 10 farmers’ markets opened this fall in Oakland public schools. The other stands, the result of a partnership between the school district and East Bay Asian Youth Center, are mainly located in low-income areas in so-called “food deserts,” parts of the city in which fresh fruits and vegetables are hard to find, writes reporter Katy Murphy in a recent story for the Oakland Tribune.

What do you think of such programs operating on school grounds? In a week when school gardens in California have come under attack from some pretty snarky quarters, I’m curious to hear what others have to say about schools getting into the business of growing and selling food on campus.

(For a well-reasoned rebuttal to The Atlantic‘s “Cultivating Failure,” penned by the frequently contrarian Caitlin Flanagan, check out this Civil Eats story by slow food chef Kurt Michael Friese.)

Given my background, perhaps I’m biased, but I see tremendous benefits in an edible education and few downsides to feeding kids fresh food.

What say you?

Photos: Joseph Bansuelo

2010 Harvest Calendar

January 5, 2010

Happy New Year! I wanted to share with my peeps one of my favorite holiday gifts (thanks again Marge), this lovely harvest calendar by artist and organic plant nursery co-owner Helen Krayenhoff.  It’s filled with photos of tempting produce and each month includes a recipe — Picante Cabbage Slaw for January, Bok Choy Sauteed with Garlic & Ginger in March, Chard Frittata for October.

There’s also a list of produce in season each month and helpful tips for storing and handling, such as “never store tomatoes in the fridge, they will lose their flavor.” Sound advice! (Recipes are translated into Spanish and Chinese as well.)

Twenty percent of proceeds from the Celebrating Our Local Harvest Calendar pictured goes to Oakland school gardening programs; some schools, including one I’ll profile here soon, sell the calendars as a school fundraiser. They’d make a mouth-watering gift for folks in the Bay Area and beyond.

For the past few years, those of us with kids in Berkeley public schools have received a cheery food calendar sent home in September. The BUSD calendar includes school lunch menus, recipes from cooking teachers, and luscious produce pics by Terri Hill.

The calendars are intended to encourage family cooking, jaunts to the farmers’ market, and community building — along with a healthy appreciation for eating well.

Above my desk The Organic Kitchen Garden 2010 Calendar, by sustainable gardening author Ann Lovejoy with bold produce shots by Robin Bachtler Cushman, reminds me how fortunate we are to have so much fresh food available. The BUSD and local harvest calendars grace the walls of my kitchen. Our little home is bursting with ideas & images for eating lots of local goodies from our friendly farmers’ markets.

Wishing you, dear readers, a bountiful 2010 as well.

P.S.: Just received a copy of The Edible Schoolyard‘s Calendar of Values (thank you Marsha), filled with inspiring photos by Bob Carrau and words to live by. Makes for a lovely journal. Fittingly, the first entry: abundance.

Sam Siegel, 10, Seasoned Chef

December 22, 2009

How many 5th graders do you know who wonder what to do with orange marmalade languishing in the refrigerator, decide to mix it with some brown sugar, soy sauce, olive oil, and garlic and use it as a sauce to accompany braised cod for the family dinner? Exactly.

I bumped into Sam Siegel, a former student of mine, at the farmers’ market on Sunday. When Sam was in second grade at Malcolm X School in Berkeley, he signed up for all my after school cooking classes. Sam was keen as mustard to try every tool, technique, and recipe that came his way. It was obvious, even then, that he was passionate about food.

I lost touch with Sam, now 10, when he switched schools a year ago (he’s in the same grade as my son). But at a stall selling his holiday cookies I learned what’s been cooking lately on the edible and entrepreneurial front for this earnest young chef.

Sam is active in the Sprouts Cooking Club, which takes children into real restaurant kitchens and bakeries in Berkeley and Oakland, such as Chez Panisse, Bread Workshop, and Pizzaiolo, to learn from real chefs. He’s attended summer cooking camps hosted by Spun Sugar and this week created edible gifts at Paulding & Company cooking school in Emeryville, the kitchen location for the first season of Top Chef.  (An aside: Owner Terry Paulding taught animators at Pixar how to cook so they could authentically replicate the process in the film Ratatouille.)

Sam’s off to the south of France on a culinary tour with the folks from Sprouts, including chef Jed Cote, over spring break next year.  He’s looking forward to learning to cook dishes he hasn’t even heard of yet. By baking cookies for his synagogue, bar mitzvahs, and other events, he’s raised enough to cover the cost of the $2,000 trip. Now he’s saving to go to China with his school choir this summer; his other love is singing.  Sam hopes to earn $4,000 to pay for that trip. That’s a lot of cookies. Did I mention that Sam, who now attends the Pacific Boychoir Academy, is just 10?

In September, Sam was part of a three-member team who won a Sprouts Cooking Club Cook Off modeled after Iron Chef (think time crunch and secret ingredient) sponsored by Whole Foods in Berkeley and judged by local chefs. The winning dish: Eggplant parmigiana with goat cheese. You can watch an amusing account of the competition here.

Sam’s favorite kitchen tools: A garlic chopper and onion goggles, picked up from Sur La Table (though the editors at Eat Me Daily sniff at such eyewear, in the kitchen kids will try anything to avoid tearing up while chopping). He loves ethnic cuisine, particularly Indian and Italian. He finds recipes a bit boring, preferring to experiment with ingredients, temperatures, and techniques. And, like all good cooks, he’s had his share of flops: Hot and sour soup so spicy it burned his tongue. A few inedible misadventures with a slow cooker. He shrugs off such failures as part and parcel of perfecting his craft.

Here’s what Sam enjoys most about cooking: “I really like it when other people enjoy what I make. That’s very satisfying, especially if it’s a dish that takes a long time to prepare, like vegetable moussaka.”

In ten years or so if you run across a cafe called Essen (it means “to eat” in German and a certain kid thinks it’s a cool name for a restaurant) serving salmon teriyaki and lemon souffle you might inquire about the name of the chef. Don’t be surprised if it’s Sam Siegel.

Sam takes email orders for his ginger, chocolate crackle, and oatmeal raisin cookies at bakingmonster@pacbell.net.

Foodie Focus: Mickey Murch & Gospel Flat Farm

December 14, 2009

Photo: courtesy of Sarah Warnock

It’s a great time to be a farmer. So says Mickey Murch, who tends his family’s farm in beautiful Bolinas, an eclectic coastal enclave in West Marin, California.

He hasn’t always felt this way. Mickey grew up running bare foot through fields but he didn’t want to dig dirt to make his way in the world. He’d seen how demanding a farmer’s life could be at close hand. So he left the life of the land for Reed College in Oregon to study art.  Perhaps not surprisingly, though, his art was informed by his life, which centers on food, family, farming, and the natural environment. He splashed paint on work boots and wheel barrows and threw popular beer-brewing and pizza-baking parties outdoors.

For his senior thesis he lived rough for a year as part of a one-man sustainability show exploring whether a student could survive on a college campus growing, making, finding, recycling, or bartering the basic necessities of life.  He camped out in a handmade rolling caravan, stitched his own shoes out of leather straps and worn tire treads, and preserved produce, beer, beans, cider, and salmon in mason jars that he used to create an indoor installation that included a film documenting his experience.

As a part of his artistic edible evolution Mickey began to realize that his creative self was so thoroughly entwined with his farm-boy background that he made his way back to the land. In Bolinas he built himself a pod to live in so he could commune with the wild world, and designed what illustrator/blogger Maira Kalman, calls his cockamamie contraption — a mobile kitchen from which he spreads the good word about eating local, organic food fresh from his family’s Gospel Flat Farm. The 10-acre organic farm is named for the four churches that once stood in the spot that now boasts a booming mid-sized row crop and modest animal farm.

When he started working alongside his dad, who had run the farm with his wife since 1982, Mickey made typical first-time farmer mistakes. It took time to figure out what produce to grow and where, as he got to know intimately the climatic conditions he inherited. Even something as simple as watering crops has a learning curve. “A new farmer will look at the surface soil and see that it’s dry but a seasoned grower will kick down the soil a few inches to check for moisture,” says Mickey.

He didn’t have a clue about how to sell what he grew. He tried delivering boxes of produce or inviting people to the farm to pick their own, but neither felt quite right. Almost as an afterthought, he began putting excess produce out by the side of the road. That proved the inspiration for the Farm Stand. The unattended stand works on the honor system; customers weigh and pay without oversight (the locked money box is emptied regularly.)

Now in its third year, the Farm Stand has grown so popular that the farm sells most of its produce there. Locals, travelers, and tourists purchase seasonal crops such as greens, flowers, beans, and beets at any time of day or night. Mickey’s favorite question from folks who stop by: “What do you do with this?” And he enjoys not having to haggle with wholesalers over the price or appearance of his produce: “You can accomplish so much when you don’t have to peddle your wares.”

Photo: Sarah Henry

Mickey, 24, hasn’t abandoned his artistic pursuits; at a recent open studios he presented an edible landscape installation. And an art studio behind the Farm Stand is slated to become a space for groups to meet and merge the world of art, food, and farming. He’s also keen to pass on his love of the land to novice farmers, through an apprenticeship program, and young children, in afterschool and summer camp classes and school tours. He’ll fire up the outside oven, he says, and ask the kids what they want to cook. Sometimes they bake bread or make chard-filled raviolis from scratch with eggs and produce collected from the farm. He also wheels his mobile kitchen (formerly a boat) into downtown Bolinas for community canning or cooking demos. Here’s what it looks like:

Flickr photo by Michael Korcuska courtesy Creative Commons license.

The farm remains a family affair. Mickey’s older brother, Kater, a physicist now living in Berkeley, runs the clan’s winery. His mother, Sarah Hake, is a plant geneticist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture; she picks up starts and seeds for the farm from work. (Local note: That corn crop growing in Albany as you enter town? That’s Mickey’s mum’s doing.) She also planted a community vegetable patch next to her workplace. Mickey’s grandmother, artist Carol Hake, paints portraits of farm stand produce and brings persimmons from her Los Altos Hills home to add to the bounty for sale. Dad Don runs a local land-clearing, tractor-based business and provides oversight for the entire farm operation. And cousin Sam works alongside Mickey, planting, picking, and maintaining the crops and livestock.

Mickey, who lives on the property (in a building now), with wife Bronwen and their baby, has plans for expanding the farm. He’d like to cultivate more orchard crops and raise more livestock animals. But as he cleans and cuts brussels sprouts one recent cold morning it’s clear from the enthusiasm and earnestness that this young grower brings to his way of life that it is, indeed, a good time to be a farmer.

The Gospel Flat Farm Stand is located just before the plant nursery and stop sign on the Olema/Bolinas Road in Bolinas.