The notion of food sovereignty arose as people around the world sought ways to rectify the dysfunction in the way food is grown, distributed, and consumed — a dysfunction that results in a seriously confusing outcome: record numbers of obese children who also happen to be utterly malnourished. The issues around food sovereignty are very complex but might be distilled into a simple question: Who decides what you eat?
This question inspired the Orfalea Foundation, in collaboration with partners including Share Our Strength, to create Food Sovereignty Week, September 9-15. The week includes public events, such as a free screening of the documentary A Place at the Table on September 10 and an evening with noted author Janet Poppendieck as she discusses The Future of Hunger on September 12. The week concludes with the September 15 Foodbank of Santa Barbara County’s annual Table of Life Gala, supporting Feed the Future, a series of innovative programs that foster food literacy, nutritional health, and independence in children of all ages.
Our own work in school food reform has been very much about offering better alternatives so children can choose healthier food. “With all the news about obesity, food security, and the drastic loss of biodiversity in agriculture, many people want to make better choices, but they don’t have as much choice as they may think,” says Kathleen de Chadenèdes, the foundation’s School Food Initiative director. “Consolidation and industrialization of the American food system gives us supermarket aisles filled with the illusion of choice, but composed almost entirely of soybean and corn byproducts, and remarkably devoid of nutrition.”
Our focus on school food has been an attempt not only to provide more nutritious choices to children but also to help those children learn that healthy food, prepared properly, tastes good. We hope these children influence their families and communities to make healthier choices and that the health and wellness benefits will extend throughout their own lives and into the lives of their children. Tens of millions of children get the majority of their daily calories in school, so we aim to ensure there are healthy calories on the menu.
There’s a lot more to school food reform than getting a scratch-cooked meal onto the tray, including facing challenges that stretch from the crony capitalism of the farm bill to the almost hypnotic power of toddler-focused junk food marketing. Lack of food literacy and healthy choices makes children heavier and hungrier, in a vicious — and very profitable — cycle of empty calorie consumption. Who decides what children eat? Adults at home and in Washington seem to have abdicated responsibility for understanding and acting on the nutritional needs of future generations.
Over the past few years, our School Food Initiative Chef Instructors have seen encouraging progress in school meal quality, with over two-thirds of our county’s schools now providing some scratch-cooked meals, and the beginnings of a corresponding shift to a culture of wellness on campus. It is our belief that schools can play a pivotal role in the reestablishment of food sovereignty in American communities, because the cafeteria is really a classroom, and the habits formed there stick with kids longer than the techniques for solving a quadratic equation. Garden-based learning, Farm-to-School programs, and school meals are all opportunities to build food literacy and better health.
Managing the School Food Initiative, we have sometimes felt overwhelmed by the challenges before us. Food Sovereignty Week is an opportunity for concerned people and organizations to come together and learn about progress in the areas of hunger alleviation, food literacy, and food system reform. It’s all connected. When people understand how food affects their health, their communities, and their children’s ability to learn, they strive to make better choices. Food Sovereignty week is about making sure those choices are available and affordable. The Orfalea Foundation’s School Food Initiative has learned a lot from our successes and failures, but the most important thing we’ve learned is that although there are many things we cannot do, we can feed hungry children healthy food that tastes great.
Food Sovereignty Week
Film Screening: A Place at the Table
7 p.m., Marjorie Luke Theatre, free
Reservation info at FoodSovWeek.com
The Future of Hunger: An Evening with Jan Poppendieck
7 p.m., Marjorie Luke Theatre, $5 online, $10 at the door
Ticket info at FoodSovWeek.com
Proceeds support Foodbank of SBC and School Food Initiative
Foodbank of Santa Barbara County Table of Life Gala
Info at http://www.foodbanksbc.org/tableoflifegala.html
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Lois Mitchell is president of the Orfalea Foundation.