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Growing Up Gourmet: October 2008

Friday, October 17, 2008

What Happened to Home-Ec?

Our dog goes nuts for kids. Babies in strollers, toddlers with mom, awkward teenagers -- they're all Auggie's best friend. For a real treat, some mornings I take him on the "school tour" in our neighborhood. We pass 1 middle school, 3 pre-schools, 1 elementary school, and a community college. We also encounter numerous treat-bearing crossing guards. Auggie gets more pets and attention in that 45 minute walk than your average mutt does in a week.

This morning we passed several groups of middle-schoolers ambling towards class. And most of them were still working on 'breakfast'. (You know, the most important meal of the day.) Hot cheetos. Caramel popcorn. Jolt, Vault, Monster. (Engery drinks, in case you weren't sure.) Chicken nuggets. I was so appalled I think I would have been relieved to see some breakfast junk food of yesteryear. Think Pop tarts, Egg McMuffins, and breakfast sausage Hot-Pockets.

In reality, I guess I wasn't too shocked. In fact, it was watching too much consumption of hot-cheetos before 9am that propelled me into the kids' cooking and nutrition business anyhow. As a middle school teacher, I was all too accustomed to the sugar highs and lows these junks foods caused, especially during first and second period. The implications for students who start their day with a healthy breakfast is astounding, from test scores to type 2 diabetes to behavioral and attention disorders. And by now, it seems teachers, nutritionists, doctors**, and (some) parents all know this.... so who's telling the kids???

The lack of health-education (it's not just sex-ed) and life-skills classes in our schools is devastating, and is no doubt one of the many factors contributing to our nation's growing obesity rate. When I was a kid, I was taught the difference between Fruit Loops and fruit salad. Sure, I loved my annual birthday box of Fruit Loops. But I understood why I ate fruit salad the rest of the year. Kids today are simply not receiving the requisite nutrition and culinary education to make good choices about what they eat. Not only are schools not teaching it, they're not serving it either. Nearly 80% of US school cafeterias do not meet the USDA nutritional guidelines for school lunch (how can they when they get just $1.00/child?), and many offer items from Taco Bell and Pizza Hut. Kids aren't dumb; they probably know that a Double Whopper isn't the best thing for them. But I don't think they realize the lifelong ramifications of the food choices they make.

With a quick search on google for "home economics in schools today", I could hardly find an article or website that discussed cooking and health education in American schools. (The most relevant was from 2001.) Of course, there are some exemplar school district programs, like Alice Water's-influenced Edible Schoolyard in Berkley. And there is excellent curricula for interested teachers, such as Dr. Antonia Demas' Food Is Elementary. But we've yet to come close to anything as radical as UK's recent mandate which requires secondary schools to teach health education and cookery to all the country's children.

In previous political campaigns, I've gotten pretty fired-up when the candidates debate education reform. During Wednesday's final debate, it got barely a sound bite as the last topic posed by Bob Schieffer. And you can be sure that building kitchen classrooms, planting school gardens, improving the nutritional quality of cafeteria food, and home-economics classes weren't in either of the candidates' responses.
**In fact, only 40% of medical schools require doctors to take a nutrition course, and 6 of the top 16 US hospitals have fast food in the cafeteria.

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Tuesday, October 14, 2008

School Lunch Reform and Victory Gardens

"Changing the food culture must begin with our children", writes Michael Pollan, in his article "Farmer In Chief", which appeared in Sunday's New York Times' Magazine.

Using his typical compelling and poignant prose, Pollan implores our future president-elect to direct his energies towards our nation's rapidly deteriorating food system. If the man sworn in next January heeds Pollan's advice, even the most pessimistic political and cultural cynics at the table will find hopeful promise in America's new food system - one that is based on sunshine.

In case you haven't got the time to read Pollan's latest manifesto (though I really suggest you do), here are two significant changes which would make it easy to be Growing Up Gourmet with Michael Pollan as Secretary of Agriculture.

Lunch will become a mandatory part of the school curriculum, from planting a seed and watching it grow, to creating, following, and preparing a recipe, and to enjoying a meal shared with friends and teachers. Coupled with endless teachable moments, countless math, science, reading, and social lessons, and a healthy portion of Superfoods, lunch will become the "Super-Class":

"On the premise that eating well is a critically important life skill, we need to teach all primary-school students the basics of growing and cooking food and then enjoying it at shared meals."

Children will visit the White House not only for the chance to see the Oval Office, but the opportunity to till the Presidential soil. After devoting five acres of White House lawn to an organic fruit and vegetable garden, Pollan hopes to redefine the way Americans view farming, quite literally from top-down. With reminders of Eleanor Roosevelt's Victory Garden of 1943 that inspired 20 million home gardens and supplied 40% of the nation's produce (!!!):
"The president should throw his support behind a new Victory Garden movement, this one seeking “victory” over three critical challenges we face today: high food prices, poor diets and a sedentary population... ...Making this particular plot of American land productive, especially if the First Family gets out there and pulls weeds now and again, will provide an image even more stirring than that of a pretty lawn: the image of stewardship of the land, of self-reliance and of making the most of local sunlight to feed one’s family and community."

As the most basic aspect of human existence, and historically one which has created cultures and defined nations, food and it's supply is an issue every world leader must be discussing. Thank you, Mr. Pollan, for reminding us that our nation's security, health care, economy, and future depend on it.

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Thursday, October 9, 2008

Lessons in Gnocchi and Life

I spent the last 2 weeks eating my way through Paris, France and Piedmont, Italy. From steak tartare and moulles frites to fresh Genovese pesto and melt-in-your-mouth Barolo braised lamb, we ate some of the best meals of our lives. The trip was a gastronomic delight.

When we arrived at our rustic agriturismo (a working farm turned bed-and-breakfast) just outside of Alba, Italy, our hostess-extraordinaire met us with hands covered in flour. Alessandra -- inn-keeper, mother of 3 (including an 11-month old), cook, goat-milker, jam-maker, and wife to accordion playing, wine making, farm managing husband, Batista -- was busy making fresh gnocchi to feed nearly 60 people that evening. (Their family serves an 8 course dinner to hungry locals 4 nights a week, featuring cheeses, jams, eggs, meats, vegetables and wine, all straight from their farm. Dinner often begins with several antipasti dishes, followed by multiple pasta and meat courses, and after sipping the farm's own grappa, ends with Batista leading the guests in song and dance well after midnight.)

Make fresh gnocchi in a beautiful Italian farmhouse with an experienced cook? I was only too happy to help.
With my hands now covered in flour, and through my poor Italian and her excellent English, Alessandra and I managed to discuss the things most important to us both: food and family. When I told her that I made my living teaching children to cook, she didn't understand. And it wasn't the language barrier.

"You mean like a nanny?" (Nope.)
"Well, why would you need to teach kids to cook?"
I didn't need to give her my usual talk on the benefits of kids' cooking. We had a different misunderstanding. Though home to Slow Food, and the University of Gastronomic Sciences, in Italy, kid's cooking classes are a pretty foreign concept.
"Why wouldn't the parents and grandparents simply teach their kids to cook?"

It was true. Hadn't recipes and techniques been passed down from generation to generation for hundreds of years in Italy and elsewhere? Why had so many parents in America misplaced the know-how, or ran out of the time, to pass down one of life's most important skill sets?

You can blame it on McDonald's or the microwave, 12-hour work days or Applebees. While I don't have the answer, I may have the solution. A lot of American families are busy, hungry, and kitchen-challenged. And yet the children's culinary market continues to grow. By encouraging this impassioned surge of interest that so many children have shown in the kitchen, and by indulging them in culinary lessons, we might just be changing the way the next generation thinks about food. I say, let's give kids the framework to appreciate the joy of feeding their family! Let's teach them to saute, shell a bean, and make soup from scratch! Let's make gnocchi!

And in 20 years these kids' kids might just learn to cook alongside their mom and dad. Just as Carolina and little Giovanni do at Casa Scaparone.

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