When one envisions a stereotypical school lunch, a plate of leathery cheese pizza and a high fructose-laden soda with a side of green jello may come to mind. Fortunately this concept of lunch is soon to be tossed in the trash at a handful of New York City public institutions.
Currently 25 schools around NYC are taking part in a unique program where kids will have a chance, not only to eat whole, organic foods, but also to work in the soil and see little seedlings mature into healthy, edible plants. It’s not the first time school gardens have become the flavor of the month, but it’s the first time it’s happened on a significant scale in the country’s largest and most diverse city.
While the steel and concrete landscape of NYC may seem uninhabitable to much of anything green and living, its five boroughs actually house the largest network of urban gardens in the entire country, which includes some 600 city-run gardens that service over 20,000 residents. The program, called GreenThumb, also provides educational workshops about gardening and nutrition to many New Yorkers.
The GreenThumb plots are just a fraction of the total public garden spaces in the Big Apple, most of which serve low income, minority communities. Indeed NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg, while being criticized for a number of policy implementations (especially in relationship to his handling of other school system policies) of late, has received accolades from public health advocates for his support in banning trans fats from restaurants as well forcing all chain establishments to post calorie counts of the food they sell.
Now Bloomberg has teamed up with one of TV’s spunkiest celebrity chefs, Rachel Ray, whose Yum-o! organization is helping to provide logistical support for the building and maintenance of the new school garden program.
"We are very excited to form this public-private partnership with Mayor Bloomberg to help teach New York City youth where food comes from and in turn provide them with encouragement to make healthier choices," said Rachael Ray. "In addition to empowering kids to cook and have a healthier relationship with food, these programs will also allow us to show kids how the culinary arts can be a positive career path, which is one of the major goals of our Yum-o! organization."
The purported goal of the "Garden to Café" program is to connect these gardens and school lunches through seasonal harvesting celebrations. The City will be providing small grants to expand the program next year, and while the its rollout clearly needs additional funding to make a substantial impact on student health, it is nonetheless being touted as an example of what lunch programs across the U.S. should strive to reflect.
"My response to this initiative? Yes!," New York University Public Health Professor and renowned author Marion Nestle recently said in and interview. "This is a terrific thing for Rachel Ray to take on. If anyone can do it, she can. I’m aware of a few NYC public schools that include growing food as part of the curriculum or community service, and those programs work well enough to inspire others."
The fact is, anything that could possibly contribute to a reduction of obesity and Type 2 diabetes among children in NYC is likely to be popular among public health proponents. The New York Academy of Sciences reports that over 23 million Americans suffer from Type 2 diabetes. The disorder is also disproportionately more common among minority groups in the U.S. and is associated with a diet laden with high-fructose corn syrup and low fiber.
A major objective of the lunch program is to introduce healthy foods that perhaps aren’t a staple in their current, processed food eating habits.
"As a kid, I was thrilled by the taste of fresh vegetables and berries that I watched grow and there is plenty of evidence that kids who know how to grow food will be much more adventurous about tasting it," Prof. Nestle added.
Of course, in a population-dense city with minimal open spaces, additional school gardens will have to be developed innovatively, and in some cases, in unorthodox locales. In the East Village at the bustling PS 364 vegetables are being grown in pickle barrels. Up in the Bronx at Discovery High School a hydroponic system is operating to allow the school to grow organic food in a limited area. Over in Brooklyn rainwater collection and compositing is also helping PS 146 to sustain its blossoming school garden.
However, not all agree that such a program will be intellectually beneficial to students. In a recent article in The Atlantic, Caitlin Flanagan ripped into the school gardening "fad" in California, arguing that it deprived Mexican immigrants and others the "hours they might other wise have spent reading important books or learning higher math."
"My state is full of semiliterate 14- year-olds. Let their after-school hours be filled with whatever enriching programs the good volunteers and philanthropic organizations of California care to offer them: club sports, choruses, creative-writing workshops, gardens," wrote an enraged Flanagan. "But until our kids have a decent chance at mastering the essential skills and knowledge that they will need to graduate from high school, we should devote every resource and every moment of their academic day to helping them realize that life-changing goal."
What Flanagan doesn’t seem to grasp is that the knowledge and ability to grow one’s own food, not to mention how to cook it in a healthy way, are the "real essential skills and knowledge" that will help children live free of Type 2 diabetes and other debilitating ailments. Ultimately it is about priorities, and if children’s health and wellbeing aren’t put first, especially in a country where youth obesity runs rampant (in particular among the minority populations Flanagan hopes to help), than the benefits of a formal education will only enhance one’s life quantitatively.
"I know [Flanagan] thinks that teaching kids about gardening takes away from learning more important skills, and is racist besides, but I don’t buy that for a minute," counters Prof. Nestle. "Growing food is a skill that involves plenty of learning and provides lifelong satisfaction."
If NYC’s program grows in popularity there will likely be a subtle backlash against the inroads it makes, and not only from traditional education-zealots like Flanagan. The vending machine pushers that now satisfy the majority of student appetites won’t likely sit idly by if their revenues begin to dip. Certainly a few dozen gardens that fill school lunch trays are only a small piece of the puzzle in countering the barrage of misinformation and advertisements that school-aged kids are inundated with on a daily basis. But supporters maintain that it is at least a start.
"When children grow food and become aware of the importance of local agriculture, we expand opportunities to serve locally-grown foods in schools and most importantly, we increase student consumption of healthy produce," said New York State Agriculture & Markets Commissioner Patrick Hooker.
City kids that know where their food is grown, and in some cases are actually planting it, is a winning recipe, stated former pediatrician Dr. Kornberg who now serves as executive director of Farm Sanctuary, a group that advocates for vegetarian diets and compassion toward farm animals.
"The growing concern for the health of this nation’s children is definitely warranted," said Dr. Kornberg. "Nearly one in three American children is overweight or obese, and obese kids are more likely to exhibit risk factors associated with cardiovascular disease, the leading cause of death in the United States."
Time will tell if the new way of looking at school lunches in NYC has any lasting impacts or ripple effects among food programs in other school districts across the country.
"Type 2 diabetes has skyrocketed over the last several decades," Dr. Allan Kornberg, Farm Sanctuary’s executive director and former pediatrician, told AlterNet. "Our hope is that this program starts to help address important issues like this more substantially, on a systematic level."
This article first appeared in Alternet.org
Joshua Frank is an environmental journalist and author of "Left Out! How Liberals Helped Reelect George W. Bush." He is co-editor, with Jeffrey St. Clair, of "Red State Rebels: Tales of Grassroots Resistance in the Heartland." Frank and St. Clair are also the authors of the forthcoming book, "Green Scare: The New War on Environmentalism." He can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.