When Jamie Oliver set out to change the eating habits of people in Huntington, West Virginia, he cut up a whole raw chicken in front of a group of school children. He started by removing the breasts, legs, and wings and separating them from the leftover carcass. Then he asked the children which pile contained the best parts of the chicken, and they pointed to the breast, legs, and wings. Then he put the other pile, the skin and carcass, in a blender and pulverized it.
When he told the kids those were the parts used to make chicken nuggets, they chimed, “Ewww!” in unison. But when he formed the blended bone and cartilage into patties, fried them, and asked who would like one, the kids’ hands shot up.
We who live in the land of the Edible Schoolyard like to think this would only happen in Huntington, West Virginia, but that is far from the case. Santa Cruz High School student Nick Morris recently filmed students in the lunchroom at one of Santa Cruz’s public elementary schools as they approached the new salad bar. The kindergarteners, along with a few first graders, moved right in and filled their plates with fresh organic lettuce and raw vegetables. But the older students’ eyes never even met the salad bar.
Kids in our schools are conditioned, says Santa Cruz City Schools’ Food Director Jamie Smith, “to eat food that is either brown or white.”
“I can put anything out there,” Jamie says, “but that doesn’t mean they’re going to eat it.”
Like the kindergarteners who were the district’s first dual immersion class and are now the program’s first sixth graders, our students’ palettes are going to take time to develop. That is why education is such an important component of the national movement toward healthy school meals. And that is why Doron Comerchero’s “Food, What?!” program is so powerful. Doron is not waiting, any more than Jamie Smith is, for those kindergarteners to refine their palettes; he’s educating youth now through what he calls “ a youth empowerment program using food through sustainable agriculture and health.” Students enrolled in “Food, What?!” recently hosted their annual Strawberry Blast at the UCSC Farm, inviting two to three hundred middle and high schoolers from the area to an event featuring organic strawberries grown on the farm.
On the day of the Strawberry Blast, Jorge, a Costanoa senior and one of Food What’s biggest proponents, was helping run Fast Food Jeapordy, with groups of students from different schools competing for a flat of organic strawberries. One of the Jeapordy questions was: Which has the most calories? A six-inch turkey sandwich with veggies on wheat, a small strawberry smoothie, or a large coke? One group guessed the sandwich. Another group guessed the smoothie. Nobody guessed the right answer, which was the coke.
Not far from Fast Food Jeapordy, Jamie Smith was serving Agua Fresca made from Farm strawberries and organic agave nectar, but students had to work for their strawberries there too.
“Pick a word,” Jamie told a student, pointing to a stack of papers, and she picked up one that said “potatoes.”
“What do you think of first when you see that word?” he asked.
“Fries,” she said.
“Fries. Do you cook them yourself at home?”
“Yes,” she said. “Out of the package.”
It was the opportunity Jamie had been waiting for. He encouraged her to try making fries from scratch, so that she could see how much oil it took to cook one batch. Every time a new group of students approached his table, he asked them how they liked the new food at school, and most of them said they didn’t.
“I don’t take it as an insult,” he said. “It’s a process. There are so many rules from the USDA I have to follow. But the food’s going to get better every year, and I’m going to be breaking more and more rules.”
That’s why they call it a Food Revolution. And that’s why Justice is one of the key words in Food What’s mission statement. Organic healthy food isn’t just for Chez Panisse worshipers like this writer, whose offspring makes crepes with olive tapenade, and organic healthy food isn’t just for the students whose school meals are subsidized. Until all of our students gather around the same table for organic food grown in their own communities, the parents and teachers talking about it are like the adults we cannot understand in a Charlie Brown movie. Kids do what their friends are doing. Jamie Oliver knows it, and Doron and Jamie Smith do too. The revolution begins and ends with them.