If T.S. Eliot were writing today,he might pen a poem that began: We are the hollow men / We are the stuffed men / Leaning together / Stomachs filled with Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.
Only 2 percent of children meet all the recommendations of the USDA Food Guide Pyramid and 16 percent do not meet any of the requirements. The percentage of overweight young people has more than doubled in the past 30 years. The average teenage boy consumes 34 teaspoons of sugar per day, which might go a long way to explaining a generation defined by hyperactivity.
Harding Elementary School is trying to fix this problem one meal at a time with a project that isn’t just about eliminating junk food, but is about connecting children to their food choices early on so they may develop sane and healthy food habits for life-something particularly important in a school where more than Â¾ of the students come from a socio-economically disadvantaged background. Laurel Lyle, Peabody School’s executive chef and Harding’s consultant, said, “Everybody talks about healthy food and teaching children to eat well, but food nourishes a lot more than your body. We want them to know what good food really is-a totality that nourishes your body and your spirit. : That sounds hippie-dippy : ”
But it didn’t seem hippie-dippy at all at Harding cafeteria’s Breadbreaking Ceremony on Friday, August 24. Instead, some children belted out songs in that charming post-Annie way, others ran about like kids do, and a handful of returning seventh-graders were all business as they ushered in guests and handed out numerous informative flyers. Tables were set with pepper plants underneath festive vegetable-shaped mylar balloons. Speakers spoke and parents, children, and community members, from neighbors to school boardmembers and politicos, listened up to the message of “healthy food choices.”
What’s more, the dinner served was a sample of what the 550 pre-kindergarten through sixth-grade students will have to look forward to during the school year. And it was actually quite tasty: roasted chicken still in its skin so it wasn’t completely Spartan; roasted vegetables-potatoes, onion, carrots, and zucchini-tasted like they were fresh before being cooked; the rice was brown, and a bit surprising on a plate with fellow carb, the potato, but livened up with crunchy pepitas. And for dessert, a small serving of carrot cake, iced with sugar and not cream-cheese frosting. It hurts to eat healthy sometimes.
Indeed, one mother plaintively held out a fork with a zucchini chunk speared on it to her reluctant daughter. “You have to try it,” she said, although, clearly, sometimes education takes repeat lessons, which is one reason the Harding project involves a parental component of classes (and childcare so parents can attend) supported by the Fund for Santa Barbara. The fund’s director, Geoff Green, said, “All the evidence and research shows that if students’ home meals aren’t similar to their school meals, the school meals have little effect. We hope the messages get carried home and affect how families choose their menus.” What’s more, Green sees how the Harding project mirrors the very mission of the Fund for Santa Barbara, as he added, “We like how Harding is connecting the dots of local sources, health, social justice, and economics.”
Lyle said Harding will continue to follow the Peabody Charter model as the project develops: “In 2008-2009, Harding will install an onsite garden, which will serve as a learning laboratory for students to experience the entire process of taking food from seed to plate.” Currently at Peabody, the sixth-grade students run the garden and Lyle pointed out how just that day of the interview “they brought in eight pounds of gorgeous lettuce. It’s not enough for the whole school, but when they grow it they have so much more interest in trying it.”
The rethinking of the Harding cafeteria program is just one part of principal Sally Kingston’s vision. “Instead of controlling people, how can we control the environment?” she asked. “With the new cafeteria people ask me, ‘Are you going to make rules?’ Well, we have, but I’d rather set up a new environment for healthy eating. No one likes to be controlled in this day and age. It’s more powerful to develop knowledge and skills that you’ll use for a lifetime.”
Although it takes a village of foundations to the tune of more than $60,000 to fund a new program, Kingston clearly has excited many of those able to donate. Ellen Bialis of the Bialis Family Foundation said, “We’ve kind of adopted Harding. We’re just supporting their wish list and connecting UCSB’s Gevirtz School to Harding as a lab school. There’s been an incredible dynamic going on and the cafeteria is just a component. Principal Kingston is fantastic and there’s no stopping her-that school will be the best in Santa Barbara.”
Meanwhile, back at the Breadbreaking Ceremony, a poster of Kermit the Frog still asked kids if they’ve got milk, and Disney star Lalaine graced a bookmark pushing the
“5-a-Day Power Play!” that urges students to eat their fruits and vegetables. Jeri Waite, dietician from the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department, gave an impassioned talk about how Cheetos and Gatorade are “once-in-a-while foods,” juice is a food not a drink, and water should be consumed out of reusable bottles. Things seem to connect, stomach first.
And, someday, not only will the students be eating correctly, but they’ll get to grow and cook some of the food themselves. “The kitchen is where people like to hang out,” Lyle asserted. “Try imaging your house without a kitchen. It used to be there never was an institution that didn’t have one. We’re reintroducing the hearth.”
It seemed like Lyle was talking both literally and metaphorically when she said, “At Peabody, the students take part in the cooking. At Harding, not yet, but there are lots of things that will happen there that don’t yet.”