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  • Writer's pictureAli Tadlaoui

The Edible Schoolyard Project turns 25

Alice Waters, the acclaimed chef, author, and food activist who created Berkeley's Chez Panisse, launched The Edible Schoolyard Project in1995 with the aim of better nourishing school kids - "free sustainable lunch for kids K-12" - as well as nurturing a better, more direct connection between the upcoming generations of kids and the food chain that feeds them. A school is not just for "reading, riting, and rithmetic." The land the school sits on can be a learning environment if you teach kids the basics of growing food on that proving ground and see them learn to love eating the fresh, good-for-you food they've harvested in the school cafeteria.

The model for the Edible Schoolyard Project movement is at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Berkeley, California. There, a special curriculum is built around a one-acre garden classroom and a kitchen classroom where they learn to be farmers and cooks. This curriculum dovetails with what the kids learn in science and humanities classes in a very hands-on way.

The Edible Schoolyard Project has made a mark beyond the Berkeley public school system through a professional development program and short courses. There are almost 7,000 programs in their network which spans every state and U.S. territory as well as 75 other countries.

I wish, though, for more, broader, on-the-ground progress towards the vision set by organizations like The Edible Schoolyard. The aspiration is so compelling but the truth about what kids eat at lunch at school every day is less so, twenty-five years later.

The wish for a healthier, more interesting school lunch has been gnawing at me, gently, since my oldest daughter entered kindergarten a dozen years ago. What was on the menu then in that school district is not very different from what is offered now in a different school district in a different state. We've been fortunate, all along, to live in well-resourced districts that I felt were led by enlightened, thoughtful, and somewhat progressive educators, and encouraged by like-minded, demanding parents. That's why I continue to be surprised and disappointed by the prevalence of convenience (some of it downright junk) food and freshly-made food that is less than inspiring.

Lunch entrees listed by my school district's Child Nutrition department: Fries, Chicken Tenders, Chicken Nuggets, Hamburger/Cheeseburger, Hot Dog/Corn Dog, Pizza, Burrito/Hot Pocket, Baked Potato, Pasta Bowl, Steak Fingers with Gravy, Sub Sandwich, Mozzarella Sticks, Bento Box. You can imagine the Snacks list.

My kids will buy the occasional bag of chips or muffin but steer clear of the entrees and salad bar. The thing is, it's just not tasty food, even though it's definitely a kid-friendly menu.

It's encouraging to see that, according The Edible Schoolyard Project, several California school districts are being supported by programs that provide freshly made meals on the lunch menu; meals made with food grown on school grounds and food brought in from local farms and ranches that subscribe to regenerative agriculture practices. I'm guessing the kids like the food too!

I hope it doesn't take another twenty-five years for another few school districts (and ones in a more conservative part of the country) to adopt the principles and policies that truly transform school lunch menus and also support a food chain that is truly sustainable. I do realize that this entails more than principle and policy. Beyond overcoming inertia, the system of incentives, especially financial incentives, that drives the current school lunch model favors low cost, convenient food that costs less to prepare and serve. School district administrators would have to restructure or even abandon long-term food service supplier agreements and enter new arrangements, for example. They might have to work with several suppliers, farmers and ranchers, instead of either Sysco or US Foods. It means more work in a climate of uncertain budgets.

But...there are more than 15,000 school districts in the United States, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That's an awful lot of additional kids waiting to benefit from a healthier lunch. At the same time, many experts say we don't have twenty-five years to make sustainable agriculture the norm, and the basis for that healthier school lunch.

I'm fired to up to learn more about how an Edible Schoolyard program works and how you and I can contribute to making our local programs work even harder. There are half a dozen within an hour of where I live, so I'm hoping to get a schooling in the not-too-distant future.

More to come on The Edible Schoolyard, and regenerative agriculture more broadly, on an upcoming episode of the Talk to Me About Food podcast.

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