When I attended elementary school in Thailand, I had some of the best meals of my life. I especially remember delicious roasted pork shoulder— I ate plate after plate! One of the schools I attended in Thailand is in Nonthaburi Province. The school had a kitchen as big as a gym. Everytime I walked by, I saw chefs sweating as they cooked. They always seemed excited to show off the specials of the day to the children. Every day, my class sent six representatives down to the kitchen to get our lunches. Four students would carry two pots back to the classroom: one pot with some sort of a savory dish and another with the main staple, white rice or rice noodle. The last two kids would carry enough plates for everyone in our class. Every day, every class in the school would do the same. The students would set up a buffet line in the front of the classroom and then serve food to their classmates and friends. Once we ate, we all walked to the kitchen to wash our plates and utensils. First we’d scrape off the leftovers, then we’d dip our plate in soapy water and use soap to scrub it down, and then do a first rinse and a second rinse. Then maybe we’d have 30 minutes of playtime before afternoon classes.
When the students carried pots from the kitchen, served food to their classmates,and washed their own plates, they learned important social etiquette. When young students eat wholesome (and delicious!) food at a young age, they are more likely to continue the practice into adulthood. There is a saying in Thailand that the teachers and schools are second parents. If kids aren’t learning something at home, the school is the place. Things seem to be a little different with my experience in the United States.
In my college days, I started to read about school lunch in the U.S. Who would believe there are webs of politics, power, race, socio-economics, class, and culture behind the food that the children (and all of us) are eating. At Berkeley High School in California, where I attended high school, there were never more than a few hundred of over two thousand students waiting in line for lunch or breakfast. The food there actually wasn’t bad compared to other public school lunches I’ve tasted. But it still wasn’t good enough for the teenagers’ taste buds. Apparently it also wasn’t “cool” to wait in line in the cafeteria so students often didn’t eat or left campus to find something else to eat. Local businesses in downtown Berkeley are packed during lunch hour with young folks trying to get burgers, cappuccinos, bagels, burritos, sandwiches, and chinese fried rice. Soda and chips were some of the most popular snacks.
When I came to the United States, I started eighth grade at Martin Luther King Middle School in Berkeley, California. Not surprisingly, I didn’t like the school lunches there; I didn’t like cheese, tomato, or bread— the pizza! The only time I really enjoyed my lunch was when my English and Math teachers took our class to the school garden, the famous Edible Schoolyard. I didn’t realize the significance of that school garden until years later when I was researching about school lunch in college.
The Edible Schoolyard is known as a prototype garden that aims to bring wholesome food back to children in schools. They want a real kitchen in every school and they want to bring produce from local farmers and not rely solely on the “market leftovers” from the USDA. They work to get their community involved with their children’s diet. They also integrate school gardens into classroom curriculums. That was why my classes stopped by the garden a few times a year. That garden has a very nice homely kitchen. The times in the Edible Schoolyard were great because it reminded me a lot of Thailand: I got to cook fresh vegetables with soy sauce the way that I like. I felt comfortable in that environment. I learned later quite quickly that children around the country are not as fortunate as I am.
Even though I grew up surrounded by rich cultures of food, I used to love junk food like no other. I loved Twinkies, or the “Undead Snack” as Mark Bittman calls them. I bought one almost every day for breakfast and savored eating it with a glass of milk. The white cream in the middle was so delightful. I had Twinkies for breakfast for years. Then I learned that Twinkies never go bad. They have no nutrients, only fat. Even worse, the cream in the middle isn’t made of dairy products. I freaked out; what could Twinkies possibly made of!? Why were Twinkies even allowed on the market?! And why were such products doing so well? When I was a kid, those questions obviously didn’t occur to me.
After reading what Bittman had to say and doing a little research of my own, it was clear that millions of people loved Twinkies as much as I did too. Children grow to be adults. The majority of adults today still don’t know exactly what they are eating. When I tell my so-called “adult” friends facts like, Your food is radiated! Your apples and tomatoes have been waxed! The water you’re drinking from that bottle is pipeline-quality, not fresh spring water like they advertised! They say no way! They freak out. They don’t believe it. They get mad at me. I get tired and just tell them to google it!
Now I think I will just invest in a few informative books and share them with my friends (I will include a list of books and links below). A lot of vegetables went through radiation to kill the basic bacteria so they would store longer and look pretty longer in the supermarkets. Did you learn the fact that bacteria breaks down organic substance (think poop)? I hope so! If you get your produce fresh from the farm, most of it will go bad in about a week. If you get your vegetables from California farms when you live in NYC, there isn’t much freshness in there from the harvest time to your table so they had to do something about it, i.e., kill the germs (and more). Apples just look so much more attractive when they’re shiny and reflecting the market lights, don’t they?
Now, how many of you have seen passion fruit in a supermarket? Rare, very rare. We don’t see it because passion fruit gets really ugly a few days after picking. When it comes down to it, supermarkets will have a hard time selling ugly-looking vegetables despite health benefits. Consumers simply won’t pick out something with a bruise, yellowish-coloring, or welted with some exceptions (like plantains). So many of us love passion fruit drinks (which are almost always loaded with sugar!) but would never know what real passion fruit looks or tastes like. I’ll tell you, it is beyond your imagination. The beauty of the flowers nearly kills the eyes. The fruit is round, an oval shape, in a soft yellow or purple color. You break the semi-hard shell, and then start sipping the seeds. The texture of the seeds is similar to chia seeds, if you know what those are. The tartness of the fruit will make you shiver in a very satisfying way. (By the way, there isn’t even passion fruit in your “passion fruit” drinks; they are engineered flavors!)
(A passion fruit flower. )
(A giant unripe passion fruit, almost as big as my head!)
The school gardens and healthy lunches, to me, keep things simple in children’s mind. They were learning when they thought they had been playing outside and they want more delicious food. Another school I attended before I moved to Berkeley was in Chiangmai, Thailand. It was a local school of about 800 students. They had an agriculture program for fourth to seventh grades. Almost weekly, the whole class would go to the school garden. There was an old man who looked after the garden living in a hut there. He would show us how to do things around the garden. Our class weeded the garden, grafted fruit trees, planted seeds in the earth, and fed the fish in the pond. We were being kids, humbly following adult’s instructions and having fun. My favorite part was when we shook the coconut trees so hard so the fruit would drop. A couple of my classmates climbed the trees and got us more. We used a machete to chop off the hard coconut shell so we could savor the juice on a humid afternoon. Like the Edible Schoolyard, we got to be active, build teamwork, and create friendships. I miss those days.
Read more on…
“Michelle Obama Reveals Her White House Garden Grows” by Marian Burros (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/29/us/politics/michelle-obama-writes-american-grown.html)
School Lunch Politics by Susan Levine (http://www.amazon.com/School-Lunch-Politics-Surprising-Twentieth-Century/dp/0691146195/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1343978438&sr=1-1&keywords=National+school+lunch+program)
“Twinkies, the Undead Snack” by Mark Bittman (http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/01/17/twinkies-the-undead-snack/)