Posts Tagged ‘alice waters’

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.

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A Taste of Justice

February 22, 2010

Think of agents for change in American eating habits, and Berkeley’s Alice Waters and Michael Pollan come immediately to mind.

Indeed, eat-more-greens advocates can appear as white as Wonder Bread.

On the menu at the local La Pena Cultural Center last night: some much-needed color in the conversation about good food matters.

Read my entire post on the foodcentric performance piece Visceral Feast over at Berkeleyside.

I first learned about the evening from accomplished choreographer Amara Tabor-Smith. (Full disclosure: I’ve taken Amara’s Rhythm & Motion dance class for almost two decades. The girl knows how to inspire joy and shake her booty like nobody’s business. Believe me when I say she raises the roof. There’s a reason I think of dance class as my church.)

Well, turns out, Amara, artistic director of  the Oakland-based Deep Waters Dance Theater, has been investigating edible issues, such as where food comes from and its impact on the community and the environment, in performance pieces that address the soul and spiritual connections to eating and cooking.

Last year she showcased a work in progress, “Our Daily Bread,” as part of an artist in residency at CounterPULSE, a non-profit theater in San Francisco.

Amara describes herself as “mostly vegan” not initially for political reasons but because she doesn’t care for the taste of meat. But she cooks meat for others and acknowledges her roots as a child growing up eating her mother’s gumbo.

She’s planning several food parties as part of her exploration of eating this year. One she’s dubbing Raw Meat, where she hopes raw food folk will dialogue with confirmed carnivores.

Find Amara’s Recession Root Stew recipe, inspired by the times and in the spirit of African American food traditions, right here.

It’s vegan, can feed lots of folks, and includes dinosaur kale, cilantro, and coconut milk. Sounds just the dish for a cold winter’s night.

At last night’s performance the audience was asked to share a favorite food memory.

I listed my sister’s pavlova and family barbecues with the proverbial “shrimp on the barbie” (Aussies call them prawns). And Vegemite on white toast, comfort food when you’re sick. All of these foods remind me of home.

The man seated next to me wrote simply, “I miss my mom’s chai.”

Now it’s your turn.

Photo credit: Alan Kimara Dixon

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’s in Session, Time for Lunch Lessons

September 8, 2009

Yesterday while loads of folks fronted for backyard barbecues, Slow Food USA sponsored more than 300 Eat-Ins around the country as part of their Labor Day potlucks with a purpose.

The cause: Getting real food into schools. The organization’s Time for Lunch Campaign seeks to bring attention to the Child Nutrition Act, the bill that governs the National School Lunch Program, which is up for reauthorization this fall. The goal: More local, nutritious food, particularly fresh fruit & veg, in a program that feeds more than 30 million children every day.

With a trio of 5th grade boys in tow, I swung by the Berkeley event at Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park. The boys were curious about the goat milk ice cream (still hard as hockey pucks when we stopped by) and pleased to see a substitute teacher performing on stage. The food, according to Ameer, looked better than what’s served at Malcolm X Elementary, where the boys are students. The gathered group, Griffin noted, seemed to include many homeless folks in search of a decent feed. Gabe just wanted to get to the pool pronto.

griffin.gabe.ameer

So we missed the speeches and the spirit of the event, which felt a little like preaching to the converted in our town anyway. Alice WatersEdible Schoolyard anyone? Renegade Lunch Lady Ann Cooper has only recently left town, after a major makeover of school food. And every public elementary in Berkeley has a much-loved cooking and gardening program. En route to the pool, the three kid critics complained that school food is unappetizing; they’re all still lunchbox lovers, despite parental efforts to convert them to the good food fight.

In fairness, many families in our school district are absolutely delighted with the fare on offer at lunchtime (snack, supplied by parents, is another matter). As I drove the boys to Strawberry Canyon to swim, I started mulling over something I read in the literature from the Center for Ecoliteracy booth at the Eat-In that made sense to me.

The brochure notes that food quality and taste aren’t the only criteria for kids’ decisions to eat — or not — at school. An inviting atmosphere or ambience is also key. I know many urban public school administrators will likely roll their eyes at this, but when I see school kids eating at benches outdoors I feel a pang of envy. My sensory sensitive son has a tough time eating in a cafeteria which, despite folks best efforts, is full of sights, smells, and sounds that aren’t always conducive to a positive eating environment.

Even the much-anticipated Dining Commons over at MLK Middle School in this city has awful acoustics. I’m surprised much eating gets done in that din at all, despite the building’s physical appeal.

That said, I want to know, as we all navigate the back-to-school transition, does your child eat lunch at school and, if not, why not?

What’s Cooking in the First Family’s Kitchen?

June 2, 2009

The-obamas-eating-dinner-001-1

Not much, judging by recent mainstream media reports. On Sunday, the New York Times noted that Michelle Obama’s big push on the eat-locally-grown-food front (think White House victory garden) may not extend to making a home-cooked meal. And last month the Washington Post revealed that when the First Lady was asked (albeit, it turns out, some time ago) for her favorite recipe, she responded, “Cooking isn’t one of my huge things.”

Wait. What’s that sound? Alice Waters on the West Coast having an anxiety attack. There’s more. When a boy visiting the White House asked Ms. Obama if she likes to cook, she said: “I don’t miss cooking. I’m just fine with other people cooking.”

Cue collective groan from nutrition educators who tirelessly attempt to whip up enthusiasm for the quaint concept of a family dinner made from scratch by parents.

But going after Michelle over her reluctance to make a meal feels a bit retro folks. Has anyone asked Barack if he bakes? Does he fix dinner for his girls? I mean, I know The President is a tad busy, what with the downturn in the economy, health care reform, and a smattering of global crises he needs to stay on top of, but everyone has to eat, right?

The Obama Foodorama blog immediately went on the defensive in a post challenging many of the assumptions cooked up by Amanda Hesser in her op-ed article for the Times. But no word on whether either parent makes dinner at home in the long post. Others weighed in on this food fight, perhaps no more scathing and succinct as Regina Schrambling over at gastropoda. Still, I suspect a guest appearance on Oprah is in Obama’s future, where those much-discussed arm muscles could be put to good use whisking up a vinaigrette for a gorgeous salad sourced from the White House veggie patch.

Now it’s your turn: Just how important is it to see the First Lady and Commander in Chief play chef? Should Sasha and Malia routinely sit down to a meal made by mom and dad? What do you think?

Eat Your Greens

March 27, 2009

It’s been a stellar week or so for the good food folks. Alice appeared on 60 Minutes espousing her delicious revolution. (What took CBS so long?)

Michelle Obama broke ground on a White House victory garden. (But how can we convince Barack that beets are divine?)

And, where I live, the Berkeley Unified School District won praise for its vegetarian-friendly school lunch program. (Does your kid eat what’s on offer at school? Alas, my son refuses to entertain the idea that school lunch could be good.)

These events are interrelated, natch, and fodder for future blog posts.

For now, it’s as good a time as any to launch Lettuce Eat Kale, a space where I’ll muse about food, family, growing greens — and share a recipe or two. To learn more about me, Sarah Henry, and my connection to kids and food, check out my About page.

Today’s offering: Roasted kale, of course. I can eat a bowl on my own. The kale ends up nice and crispy and chip-like; kids dig eating kale this way — especially if they get a chance to add their own zing (see below).

This is a super simple side dish, cheap as chips, and healthy to boot. A couple of caveats: Go easy on the oil — you don’t want a soggy green mess. Watch the time carefully — burnt, brown kale doesn’t taste good. Season with care — unless you’re crazy for seasoning — then throw caution to the wind. Enjoy.

Update: Try this tip I recently learned from Jaden over at Steamy Kitchen. Salt your kale after cooking for extra crispiness.

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Roasted Kale

You need:

* a bunch of kale (curly, dino, combo of the two, whatever floats your boat)
* olive oil
* sea salt
* lemon pepper and/or red wine vinegar (if you want to get fancy or experiment)

To do:

1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

2. Strip the leaves off the kale stems. You can cut them, but it’s more fun to strip ’em.

3. Wash the leaves and shake them dry (good kid job).

4. Tear the kale into pieces or cut into 1 inch-strips.

5. Put the pieces in a bowl, drizzle with about 2 tablespoons of olive oil to coat well.

6. Sprinkle with salt, toss the leaves with your hands (also fun for kids).

7. Spread on a baking sheet and pop it in the oven.

8. Roast for about 7 minutes, or until some of the leaves are tinged a tad brown.

9. Take baking sheet out of the oven, turn the kale with tongs, return to oven for another three minutes or so. The leaves should start to get a little crisp.

10. Return the kale to the unwashed bowl, pour on another tablespoon of olive oil — add some ground lemon pepper or a couple of drops of vinegar if you want.

11. Toss the kale with the tongs. Add more oil, vinegar, salt, or pepper to taste.

12. Toss again and serve straight away.