The Meaning of Real Food in Schools

Curious tourists wandered by the check-in table with cameras in hand.
Smiling into the sun they asked, “What is this?”
“It’s a potluck, a political potluck.”
This was how we would begin our explanation of what an Eat-In is all about. So what does it mean when we stage a form of protest that no one can identify as such? It means it’s part of Slow Food.

Listening to the speakers at our Labor Day Eat-In, including Senator Mark Leno and author Daphne Miller, it became clear that Slow Food isn’t a typical political movement-in fact, for some it doesn’t feel political at all. But Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini understands the fundamental link between our social experience and our policies and this is why he is able to speak of a “right to pleasure.” This right, like any other, is in need of defense and attention. So when Slow Food demands that schools receive grants for gardens, incentives to buy local products, and an infrastructure to reacquaint us all with real food they do so as part of their defense of the right to pleasure. This is not the sort of pleasure we see on television but the pleasure we see right in our own kitchens. It is the moment Dava Guthmiller described as that first taste of fresh green beans. This pleasure is a complicated one involving the immediate appreciation of a simply good green bean as well as the knowledge of its creation, growth, and history.
Real food in schools means precisely this combination of pleasures. It is partly about getting good, healthy food that will better nourish children. It is also partly about shifting to a sustainable system that brings producer and consumer closer. And it is also about creating a place for children to explore the idea of fairness, of meaningful labor. Not only does the flavor and nutrition of a green bean have something to offer, but also its entire process of being. Children will learn to prepare and to wait until that exciting day when the little leaves of green emerge. There is no better way to learn of a product’s true value than to toil and play in the garden.
And that is what a political potluck is all about-toil and play. The dishes were beautiful and would have made Cezanne jealous. And the dishes were important: the onions slipped into the Civic Center in unsuspecting backpacks, the tomatoes were tucked beneath a towel and the subversive meal began. But it was a Slow Food kind of subversive, full of friendly conversation, letter writing, and recipe swapping. It was the kind of subversive you can bring your kid to-in fact you should bring your kid to.
So if that taste of politics felt familiar enough, then here’s something you can try:
Go have lunch with your kid at school. See exactly what it is you object to, I suspect it won’t be just the food. This is something policy cannot address as effectively and that is why it takes all of us to change. At my school, the cafeteria workers used to blow whistles if we got too loud during lunch. And if they had to blow it three times, we ate our meal in complete silence. And if you broke the silence, you didn’t finish the meal at all; you had to stand at the front of the room for the rest of the period. I wonder how those whistle-yielding workers would have felt doing that if the room was full of parents?
What kind of a food system puts workers in that position? Let’s put cooking back in the kitchen.

This is just the start. Keep reading, keep eating, and keep challenging.

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