Friday, October 18, 2013

School Food in New Haven

Pizza and Events Intern Maddie Marino ‘15 talks about some of the problems associated with institutional food and how the New Haven Food Policy Council is working to fix them.
Microwaved pizza can be a suitable breakfast if the slice has been marinating in your fridge overnight and the herbs have integrated themselves into the tomato sauce and crust is still crispy. But it gets old every day for lunch. I spent this summer working for the New Haven Food Policy Council on an effort to figure out how we can build a food system in schools that does not nourish our children solely with reheated pizza.
The goal of the project was to get more local farm food into public school kitchens. As it turns out, these kitchens are a rare commodity. Most of the “kitchens” in New Haven’s public schools are more like reheating stations. Each school receives frozen pre-cooked lunches in sheet pans from one big Central Kitchen, and then reheats this food to serve to students for lunch. The kitchens in each individual school aren’t doing much cooking of their own, and consequently, aren’t really kitchens.  Staples included ovens, pans, and tongs, but items we might consider fundamental to cooking are absent: no mixing bowls, no cutting boards, no stovetops.
So let’s say hypothetically we tried to bring one school a couple pounds of beets to cook with. What would they chop them on? What would they peel them with? What would they cook them in? Introducing raw farm foods does not seem so feasible in this set-up.  

We took an inventory of each school’s kitchen and found that a couple schools did in fact have cooking utensils suitable for raw farm foods, tucked away in back rooms from before the Central Kitchen system was implemented. So these schools could be good places to start introducing local farm foods. Another idea would be to bring the ingredients to Central Kitchen itself. This would allow the farm ingredients to reach schools that did not have leftover cooking equipment—a welcomed goal as these equipment-barren schools are often located in the poorest communities of New Haven where students are likely not getting fresh veggies at home.

To that point, should we even be spending this much effort to improve the quality of food in schools when many of our citizens do not have enough money for food itself? In the six poorest communities in New Haven, four out of every ten people have experienced food insecurity in the past month. That is, they have not had always had enough money to buy the food they need. So is our farm food goal missing the point?  

This is a question I often return to, but I do think in this case the focus of the project is well-chosen and poised to have long-lasting consequences: feeding our children farm food in schools does not only nourish them better at present, it also sets them on life-long patterns of eating nutritious food. Part of the challenge tied up in food insecurity is getting individuals nutrient-rich foods. But providing these foods will only be beneficial if people choose to eat them. I hope that feeding children nutrient-rich food while they are in school will set them up well to choose nutrient-rich foods once they are on their own. 

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Farm intern Justine Appel ‘15 on why caring about food and agriculture doesn’t make her a hipster:

When I found out I was going to be a summer intern at the Yale Farm, I felt like I had secured a dream summer for myself: working outdoors, growing and eating wonderful food, and learning from and with people who cared as much about sustainable agriculture as I did. After volunteering on the farm throughout my freshman year, I was seriously looking forward to further developing my comprehension of the problems and challenges of our food system. But around the same time my interest in the sustainable food movement heightened, I started noticing a strong, adverse reaction to it.

One morning, I opened the Yale Daily News magazine to find myself labeled a pretentious hipster. When I expressed my frustration with factory farming to one of my close friends, she told me that I was developing extremist tendencies. When I told my mom that I was going to try to eat more seasonally, she became defensive about buying strawberries in December. “Don’t you like strawberries, Justine?”

Whether being gently mocked by a Portlandia episode or accused of attempting to make food into some sort of religion or art form, I can’t seem to escape the stereotypes associated with passion for farming and concern for how we can feed seven billion mouths without contaminating our air, water, and soil. What I thought were good intentions are often perceived as idealist, naive, and, most disturbingly, elitist.

I reject being placed in special category of people who think about the way they eat, one that is characterized by privilege and even by extravagance. Being food conscious is not something inherently white, wealthy, or seductively bohemian. Moreover, such a discourse is dangerous because it strips everyone outside a certain social category of his or her agency to eat well, affordably, and ethically.  Accepting that eating sustainably and locally is somehow bourgeois is both denying history and legitimizing a system that restricts access to fresh, healthy food within poor communities.

Don’t dismiss the sustainable food movement because it seems like a hipster’s cause. People who think of it that way will tell you that you can’t afford to buy organic. But with the world population expected to reach 9 billion within our generation’s lifetime, what we really can’t afford is ignorance or denial of the agricultural challenges ahead. No, we probably can’t feed the world on small-scale organic farms, but we certainly can’t go on burning more fossil fuels in order to have our winter strawberries while 870 million people go undernourished. We should strive to create a world where no one is too poor, too disadvantaged, or most importantly, too busy to exercise their right to healthy food.