“In France, kids go to cooking class after school…” Sarah Elton begins. “Six-year-olds use real chef’s knives, and children spend hours learning to make panfried fish, macaroons, and escargot. There is a different relationship that exists between kids and food in French culture. We don’t teach kids to cook or educate kids about food from an early age.”
This is the beginning of Sarah Elton’s speech to hundreds of students at the Good Food For All Conference in Fergus on April 27th. Thanks to the Ministry of Education Healthy Eating Grant and the hard work of Centre Wellington District High School teachers, Jeff was invited (as one of 10 chefs, along with 10 farmers, 5 nutritionists, and 2 health food stores) to partake in this amazing conference.
Hundreds of students from 12 secondary schools came together to learn how food affects academic and athletic performance, our emotions, and the planet. But most of all, to begin asking, “Where does our food really come from?”
Inspired, we’ve decided to recap the conference in a three-part blog series. In this post you can hear more of the keynote speech by bestselling author Sarah Elton. In the next post, we’ll take a look at what was served up to the students for lunch. And in the third, I overview wise words about ranching from Bryan Gilvesy of YU Ranch.
Kicking things off, teacher Diane Ballantyne introduced the day’s itinerary and gave kudos to the incredibly motivated and passionate individual behind the scenes–that is, Centre Wellington culinary arts teacher and chef Christopher Jess. (Find out more about Chris and Centre Wellington’s Food School on his website HERE).
Chris Jess couldn’t have been more pleased to have lauded food journalist, educator, and author Sarah Elton’s give the keynote address. Elton’s first book, Locavore: From Farmers’ Fields to Rooftop Gardens, How Canadians Are Changing the Way We Eat, became a bestseller, and was soon followed by Consumed: Food for a Finite Planet, a look at how to feed the world in the future (for which Sarah traveled the globe reporting on the sustainable food movement in a number of countries). Her latest book, Starting from Scratch: What You Need to Know About Food and Cooking, is for young people ages ten and up. Her CBC programs, as food columnist for Here and Now, can be found HERE and her full bio and website are HERE.
“Look at our kids’ food!” Elton starts off. Yoghurt tubes, pop, Lunchables, Fruit Loops, chicken fingers, pizza pops. The global snack food industry is worth $356 billion a year and less than 1% meet nutrition standards. Most people eat way too much salt, sugar, and bad fat. French kids aren’t different than Canadian kids–kids are picky eaters–but France has a different approach to food.
PART ONE: The Problem
What is a food system? A food system is what brings your food to you. It starts on a farm, goes to processors, stores, groceries, bakeries, manufacturers. Our system is called an industrial food system and it uses A LOT of water, land and fossil fuels.
The problem is that we’ve drifted further and further away from the beginning of that system. Not long ago you could actually buy a live chicken. These days we know less and less about how our food is produced, and sadly, because our food is so industrialized, the more we know the less we want to eat it.
Where does a peanut grow? What’s a heifer? What is kohlrabi? Armed with vegetables, Jamie Oliver went into a classroom of six-year-olds in West Virginia only to find that the kids couldn’t identify even the most common vegetables.
It’s a bleak demonstration of how far we’ve drifted.
Basically, Elton says, this is because we let the food companies educate us with their advertising, disguised to look like entertainment, with images of our peers. Teens are now following fast food brands on Twitter and Facebook. It’s fantastic for the brands, which hope to develop our brand loyalty when we’re young so they have us for life. Unfortunately, they don’t have our best interest in mind. Energy drinks, for instance, have a ton of caffeine and medical professionals have testified that these drinks interrupt brain development and are not good for you.
Likewise, Nutella is everywhere, but what’s really in it? Elton shows an eye-opening video by a curious doctor in Ottawa who makes Nutella out of it’s parts.
Luckily, there are projects cropping up all over the continent, such as the Food Literacy Center in Sacramento, California, which inspires kids to eat their vegetables by teaching low-income elementary children cooking and nutrition.
PART TWO: The Solution Tastes Great
The main solution lies in learning to cook from scratch. Kids involved in cooking are more likely to eat healthy foods. When we open a box of cereal we give over control over what goes into our bodies. But by teaching kids to cook we teach kids to have an “imaginative food life.” They think, “I’m hungry,” and then they think of all the possible things they could make to satisfy that hunger, rather than just opening a package.
Some schools in Canada have a school garden. Teachers use the garden to teach science, math and cooking classes. Students learn to grow food, and the garden offers an opportunity to learn about nature. We are part of the biosphere and we depend on the soil, the rain, and the sun.
In Toronto, there’s a program called FoodShare, a non-profit organization which aims to build a food system with access for everyone. At a Bendale high school, students produce food with the help of a FoodShare employee. There’s a great Toronto Star article about the garden HERE. And at Eastdale Collegiate, there’s a farm on the roof! Read more about it HERE.
These programs aren’t really new; they draw on the work of chef Alice Waters. founder of Chez Panisse Restaurant and Café in Berkeley, California. She has championed local, organic farms for over four decades, and helped to change the American food landscape, introducing her ideas into the public schools with the Edible Schoolyard, a program that involves students in all aspects of growing, cooking, and sharing food at the table.
In the spring of 1995, an abandoned lot adjacent to King Middle School was designated as the Edible Schoolyard Berkeley garden site. Landscape architects, chefs, gardeners, and teachers were invited to share their vision of a garden where students would participate in hands-on learning. Nineteen years later, the acre of land is lush with seasonal vegetables, herbs, vines, berries, flowers, and fruit trees. Teachers and the garden staff work together to link garden experiences with students’ science and humanities lessons for truly integrated experiential learning.
In the Edible Schoolyard program, there are garden lessons such as the “Mesopotamia Walk” (which looks at irrigation, brick-making, and agricultural technologies), as well as a “Compost Lab.” In the kitchen lessons, there are courses like “Soft Pretzels–Chemical Reactions: Biological Leaveners,” and “The Silk Road: Roman Homemade Hand Rolled Pasta with Gremolata.””
“From birth we celebrate special occasions with food. We feed each other special foods when we’re sick. The bread we bake reflects our food culture,” Elton says. In France there is something called the Week of Taste, when children take a week of classes specifically designed to help them understand where our food comes from, and how to enjoy it. Tasting lessons.
At this point, raisins are passed out to everyone in the audience; our own little tasting lesson. Elton instructs the students that we use ALL of our senses when we eat food (imagine eating an apple without the sound of it’s “crunch”), and that we have five tastes: salty, sweet, bitter, sour, and umami (savoury, like bacon, mushrooms, or parmesan). Apparently, there is an evolving field in the study of a sixth taste: fat.
After we savour our raisins, paying attention to how they look and feel and smell and taste, Elton tells us that the crux of the French tasting lesson is pleasure.
“At the end of the Week of Taste, they enjoy a delicious meal at a set table. You can do this too.” Elton encourages. “When you eat your lunch, every day.”
The philosopher E.O. Wilson said: “All of us need to connect with nature every day to be happy.”
“We were once hunters and gatherers, then farmers. Eating is now one of the few opportunities we have to connect with the earth,” Elton tells us.
“Gardens at school may seem simplistic but it’s important to learn that worms eat organic matter and it becomes soil, and to learn all of the steps in growing vegetables because we remember these steps when we eat our food.”