Dietary Literacy: Charlotte Biltekoff On New Questions for the Food Movement

October 10, 2012 § Leave a comment

Guest Blogger: Charlotte Biltekoff

The food movement has taught many of us to ask more, and better, questions about food than we have asked in the past. It has taught us to think about eating as a social and political act, to think about where our food comes from and the implications of those origins.

I want to push us a step further, and propose some new questions for us to ask not about food, but about dietary advice. Defining a good diet is also a social and political act. It’s important to think critically not just about the sources of our food, but also about the sources of our ideas about “good food” and their social implications.

Is it safe? Is it good for me? Advocates, activists, artisans and authors on the front lines of today’s food politics have taught many of us to rethink the meaning of these basic questions, to extend their significance, and take their implications to their logical extremes.

People are more eager than ever to know what is good to eat, but the question of food safety is no longer just about adulteration or spoilage. “Is it good for me” is increasingly a question that is considered inseparable from “is it good for us”?

We’ve learned to think about food safety in terms of labor, social justice and the long-term impacts of production practices on the environment. “Good food” is, for many people, no longer just about the health of individual bodies. Instead, it’s about connections to the land, communities, local economies, and the well being of future generations.

This reappraisal of the food system has also encompassed a critical examination of the ideas about good food that hold the industrial food system in place. In addition to questions about the quality and safety of our food supply, the food movement has taught many of us to be skeptical of nutrition as the arbiter of “good food.” 

My Plate is supposed to help people to choose nutritionally balanced meals, but its guidelines don’t add up to a “good diet” for people whose concerns bridge the nutritional and the environmental. There are lots of things that make food good that nutrition can’t measure; how and where it was grown, how and how much it was processed, its role within a larger cuisine, culture, history or tradition.

Nutrition advice like My Plate comes to us through a convoluted process, and many of us have become sensitized to the political imperatives and profit motives that shape nutrition guidelines.

These are important questions, but we need to push even further.

Dietary advice has important repercussions beyond validating a particular definition of good food and a particular set of production and distribution practices. Thinking about these repercussions has convinced me that we need to introduce a new set of questions into our current dialogue about food and health.

Studying the history of dietary reform movements and dietary advice in America, I’ve learned that ideas about good food also validate particular social values: ideas about morality, responsibility and what it means to be a good person. Dietary ideals have historically expressed the values of the American middle and upper middle class, so the moral aspects of “eating right” are very much entangled with the politics of class.

On the surface, dietary advice – whether it comes from the USDA or Michael Pollan – simply provides guidelines about what is good to eat. But since dietary advice also always conveys ideas about what it means to be a good person, when we are confronted with dietary advice we should think not just about the veracity of the science behind the advice, or production practices it endorses, but also the kinds of messages it conveys about morality and responsibility.

We should assume that all messages about “good food” have a purpose beyond communicating facts about food, and push ourselves to think critically about the social role that the dietary advice we are encountering might play.

What are the qualities or characteristics it equates with being a good eater? A bad eater? What is the implicit or explicit relationship between eating right and morality or responsibility?  Who is the author and who is the audience? How might different people interpret the message differently?

Being an informed consumer requires critical engagement –not just with the ethics and politics of food — but also with the ethics and politics of dietary advice. We should develop “dietary literacy” as a new set of tools to add to our growing engagement with the politics of food and health.

***

Charlotte Biltekoff is an Assistant Professor in American Studies and Food Science and Technology at UC Davis. Her book, Eating Right in America: Food, Health and Citizenship from Domestic Science to Obesity, will be published by Duke University Press in summer 2013.

Like Water Over Rocks

May 8, 2012 § 1 Comment

While I visited Eugene, Oregon in April, I met with Carrie Frazier, who founded the Eugene Coalition for Better School Food in 2010.  We’re planning a Media Social in Eugene in September 2012. Carrie is a local parent who is tirelessly organizing to make improvements in the way children eat in the schools, while strengthening local food purchasing throughout the district.

I was surprised to discover that the Eugene 4J School District has a poor record for changing school food, even though there is quite strong community consciousness about health and nutrition. Similar to other college towns, Eugene has a culinary scene that includes the oldest farmers market in the country, good restaurants and good grocery shopping.  The people I’ve met around town and at the University of Oregon are down to earth about food politics, while playing with and enjoying the sensual pleasures of the table to lighten up the drizzly, gray saturated months in the Pacific Northwest.

A year ago, parents, advocates and local chefs who were working to make change in the schools hit a rough patch.  They realized that this kind of transformation would not come quickly or easily — and getting citizens to care enough to work on the issue would take months and years of laying the foundation for change.

An image that I carry around for this kind of political and socially engaged work is that it’s like the slow yet steady movement of water running over rock. Organizers sculpt the change consistently by applying pressure and action until it seems as if things were always that way. Invisibly, delicately, powerfully.

During this recent meeting with Carrie, I noticed that the Coalition’s work is on an upswing. They’re focused now on replacing the district’s contract with the Sodexo Corporation due to expire in 2013. The Coalition is laying the groundwork to develop a feasibility study for submission to the school board, and they’re actively reaching out to mentors to help them take the next crucial steps in their process. They want the school district to operate the school food program itself, and not contract out to a private corporate vendor like Sodexo.

Why public and not privatized?  This is the argument the Coalition will have to win over with the Superintendent and School Board.

I’ve also been in touch with Gail Feenstra, a food systems analyst in the Agricultural Sustainability Institute at UC Davis, and who will be speaking at our Robert Mondavi Institute Media Social on May 24.  Her research looks at the future of these budding local programs, and she studies best practices for making them sustainable after the initial rush of local enthusiasm and energy.

In Davis, voters have consistently approved a parcel tax to provide four-year cycles of funding for school food operations.  Davis, like Berkeley, created its program more than a decade ago, and continues to evolve it as a living, dynamic entity. Serving 8,200 children, the Davis school lunch program would not survive without a community root system that is fully engaged with developing and learning from the experiences over the years.

What Davis school food advocates have discovered is that this project is a profound exercise in local democratic participation.  It requires attention from a spectrum of supporters ­­ — educators, politicians, business people, regional farmers, parents, and food reform advocates. To be successful, individuals, organizations and institutions must work together and find processes to negotiate differences when they arise.  Without these forces willing to find common ground, the program would not be able to develop this far in Davis.

And now, as the city settles into it’s second decade of this work, Director of Nutrition Services, Rafaelita ‘RC’ Curva shared her vision for the future of the lunch period for Davis students.

She sees “family style” lunch in her public schools where students and teachers eat at long tables with one another.  It will be a period for relaxed conversation and enjoyment for what’s on their plates. Children will learn more about food literacy, that in RC Curva’s vision will be integrated into the academic curriculum more fully and meaningfully.

In 1999 when the Food Committee in Berkeley set forth their School Food Policy, they stated unequivocally:

The educational mission is to improve the health of the entire community by teaching students and families ways to establish and maintain life-long healthy eating habits. The mission shall be accomplished through nutrition education, garden experiences, the food served in schools, and core academic content in the classroom.

In 1999, people thought this was a crazy notion and absurd to think it could be implemented — and why should it?  What did delicious tastes and nutritional benefits have to do with education?

As people are realizing—everything.  In 2012, we now know, as this movement catches fire across the country, that food has to do with everything, and weaves through and beyond the phrase, “educating the whole child.”

If RC Curva, along with her educational allies and supporters, can carve out a lunch period of more than 30 minutes where students and teachers eat together, then the school system will be making a subtle yet radical shift towards the understanding that the food we take in our everyday life is the foundation of our existence and culture.  And that spirit and energy will carry the next generation of minds and bodies far forward into the 21st century.

It can help change — like water over rocks — some of the most intractable issues we face in our present educational environment.

I want Carrie Frazier and the Eugene Coalition members to meet with RC Curva and Gail Feenstra. I want to connect the parents of Eugene to Zenobia Barlow at Center for EcoLiteracy to help them with the feasibility study. I want everyone struggling to make this change happen to gather and listen to one another, and learn from the strategies and victories, and maybe avoid the failures, or learn from them to pivot flexibly.

This movement is larger than one leader, one hero, one change agent making waves.  Parents and citizens must get it going, and they must keep it going —thus, the crucial ingredient in our story that we call The Parent Factor.

What I Think About When I Look At This Labor of Lunch

April 9, 2012 § Leave a comment

I’m standing off to the side of the expansive kitchen workspace, and watching a ballet of uniformed bodies in motion.  It’s 6am in the Central Kitchen at King Middle School where the crew of cooks, chefs and supervisors are preparing meals for the children of the Berkeley Unified School District.

I focus on the workers’ hands using mostly tools, not machines. They move around the stoves and chopping boards quickly and intently.  Their motions are deliberate, repetitive and tiring. I see and feel through my body and senses how hard it is to prepare and serve fresh food made from scratch for children across many schools, many tastes, and many cultures of eating.

“It’s like preparing Thanksgiving dinner for 3,000, every day of the school year,” Berkeley food services Executive Chef Bonnie Christensen says about the daily workflow.

At 5:30am every day of the school year this central kitchen wakes up with prepping and cooking activity — cleaning and cutting chicken parts, grinding meat and making broth, baking beans and cutting vegetables, setting up the salad bar and getting the breakfast bags out the door to other schools for distribution. The early morning aromas of herbs, spices and onions are earthy and delicious. The atmosphere is warm from the ovens and tense with the needs of the schedule and clock.

Making school lunch minus processed ingredients is physically demanding work.  More than just a job, this is labor that engages a worker’s whole body and attention. And because this is institutional food, it is made to strict nutritional and safety guidelines and unyielding schedules for children also ruled by the clock — eating lunch with recess in 20-minute shifts from 11:00am to 1pm.

I’ve learned to admire the new generation of food service directors moving into this field and changing it with their passion, values and professional food service skills. Chef Clell Hoffman is the Food Services Director for the Albany School District, north of Berkeley. I’m meeting him for the first time to plan a “media social” to kick off the new school year in Fall 2012.

He tells me that he loves to hear from families — from “when are you ever going to make food that my child will eat?” to “can you serve bulghur and lentils?” When he explains his vision, his challenges, and his work-arounds to maintain sustainability, parents get a better sense of what school food service directors are up against in their quest to provide healthy and delicious meals for a 20 minute lunch period.

“It’s hard to make food that children will eat,” he admits as a dad of young children himself. There are the USDA’s new 2012 rules requiring whole wheat bread, lower sodium, reduced high-calorie items and keeping green and orange vegetables on the daily menu. Milk and fresh fruit must always be available.

Congress has reauthorized funds to subsidize low costs and free school lunches, but food service directors have to come up with ways to get kids to try new foods, especially green and orange vegetables they may not like or want to eat.

Chef Clell echoes what innovators across the country are saying — for kids to make healthy choices, they have to be given hands-on experiential learning in nutrition all the way through their school years.

When children have a cooking and gardening curriculum connected to their academics, then they will be more likely to make healthy choices at lunch and home.  The word’s out that Malcolm X Elementary’s garden teacher Rivka Mason’s Massaged Kale Salad is in high demand across Berkeley — children are begging their parents to buy dinosaur kale just so they can show them how to make it.

Chef Clell says bluntly, “we need to get more funding to educate children about food. That way we’ll see more trying new tastes and a lot less waste.”

“And then, the more all kids participate in eating school lunch,” he says, “the better the school lunches will be!”

I hear Chef Clell saying that we’re all part of the Lunch Love Community educating the whole child.  When we work with our school districts to support their Food Service staff, learn about the challenges, and understand their menu choices and designs, then we’ll see remarkable improvements.

This is another kind of hard work that will take a generation to change.

Like kitchen labor, it is ultimately tremendously satisfying. It’s an invitation to be mindful about how our daily food is connected to wellbeing, to social equity and justice, and to bigger issues of how we teach our children to care for the earth, its bounty, and each other.

That’s what I think about when I look at the labor of lunch.

Germinating

March 2, 2012 § 1 Comment

Rivka Mason invites me to visit again during class times in the garden classroom, her “school under the sky” at Malcolm X Elementary School in West Berkeley. The dinosaur kale is ready to pick, and it is the sweetest now in late winter.

In this lesson, the kids are making their own kale salads. Each child picks six of the dark green knobby leaves, and takes a bowl and fork to the picnic table. They tear up the kale leaves into bite-sized pieces.

Rivka circles around the picnic table and splashes a bit of olive oil into each kid’s bowl. She says, “Let’s massage the greens with our hands. They’re going to relax and get soft.  The more you massage the leaves, the more you’ll break down the cells. They’ll taste like they’re almost cooked.”

All the hands and fingers start kneading, pinching and working their leaves into glistening softness. Rivka spritzes each child’s bowl with a vinegar dressing.  She talks about the biology of these plants, where they come from, what their nutritional value is, and when they are available in this climate. The kids dig in, and devour the salads they’ve made. Most of these eight third graders want second helpings, and they grab a few more leaves to tear up.

One little girl says, “Hold on, I still have a couple of cells to eat.”

Another boy asks, “Ms. Rivka, can you give this recipe to my Mom?” 

So, here is the recipe for everyone who might never eat raw kale, including all the parents who don’t think their kids would ever touch a leaf of it to their lips. The salad is warming and energizing, and perfectly delectable for a late winter’s lunch.

Rivka’s Massaged Dinosaur Kale Salad

  • One bunch of Dinosaur Kale
  • 3 TBS olive oil
  • Juice of 2 lemons
  • 5 TBS soy sauce
  • 5 TBS rice vinegar
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  1. De-stem the kale and chop the leaves into thin strips.
  2. Combine the lemon juice, soy sauce and rice vinegar. (Rivka pours this mixture into a spray bottle to spritz on the leaves, which works really  well)
  3. Place kale in mixing bowl and sprinkle with olive oil.
  4. With clean hands, massage and knead the leaves for 2 minutes, or until they have softened and shrunk a bit in size.
  5. Splash or spritz the glistening and softened leaves with the soy, lemon, rice vinegar mixture.
  6. Serve and enjoy with salt and pepper to taste.

You can also add in other finely cut up ingredients like julienned carrots, cold cooked beans, finely diced cooked chicken or sesame seeds.

This scene in the winter school garden produces a magical and intimate feeling on this unseasonably warm February morning.  It’s coupled with a sense of sadness and impending anxiety for what these children may be losing.  These beautiful, workable and useful scaled garden worlds created by teachers like Rivka Mason, and found throughout the elementary schools in town are increasingly vulnerable in the face of financial resources that may, or may not disappear before the next school term.

Teachers, parents and administrators aren’t sure about government funding for this curriculum now.  Several of the schools may not qualify for the grant funding because they aren’t showing more than 50% low-income families in their demographics.

There are a variety of reasons that this may be happening.  Because of a diversity and equity plan, a broader mix of children are coming from all income levels and being more evenly distributed throughout the district. Because of the economy and recession, lower income families are moving away, and more affluent families are placing their kids in public rather than private schools.

For these and other policy or zoning changes, the numbers have dropped below the requirement for 50% low-income enrollment necessary to qualify for state and federal funding for these classes. They are often hovering around the 43 − 48% level. The penalty will be a loss of this foundational support to maintain the vigor of the programs and not rely on volunteers.

Principals and parents do not want to shut down the cooking and gardening classrooms. But when the patchwork of sources to pay for salaries, supplies and professional development is weakened, it becomes increasingly challenging to weave it back together through bake sales and fundraisers.

Parental fundraising energy can accomplish miracles in the short term, which may happen for the schools waiting to find out about their funding qualification. Beside the rapid response needed immediately to help protect the gardening and cooking programs, there is the bigger question we need to address — how to educate the whole child, and make this value strong and sustainable across all sectors.

It’s a question that reverberates throughout our society as the lure of technology and the digital screen entices so many youngsters. Many will barely learn to, or never really experience, the sensory stimulating kingdoms to be found in gardens, kitchens, nature, and adventuring freely through the real world. Rivka Mason worries about this fact, since she sees so many children become transformed through even their modest contact with this outdoor environment, away from the classrooms inside.

There is an ineffable quality that draws children into this garden kingdom at school. I watch a few 5th graders sitting, talking and eating “weedos,” a creation that consists of rolled up collard greens filled with other tender pickings from the garden. Other kids return to the garden during recess or lunchtime to eat and hang out for unstructured play. Rivka always welcomes them.

The whole world is now germinating for these children through this simple and subtle process of learning through all their senses. Perhaps it can be quantified for funding purposes, but I predict that in fifteen years and beyond, one or more of these children will draw on this experience that he or she was given as a child.  It will germinate and blossom into a work of science, or art, literature, or good work and good parenting.

The whole world is in a seed, and how it will express itself in the future, throughout these children’s evolving lives, we can only imagine.

The awakening process starts now.

Like Mother, Like Daughter?

January 31, 2012 § 1 Comment

When my daughter was a young girl she was always busy after school and in the summers with enrichment activities.

Drawing, painting, and poetry classes. Beading jewelry, knitting, stamp collecting and sewing workshops. Museums, galleries, theater, movies and music shows.  Drama workshops and crafting camps.  I felt virtuous paying for and encouraging these interests.

Because that list included what I’ve always liked to do and wished I’d had more of, I naturally thought she’d enjoy the same fun projects that filled up my own childhood days. Over the years I tried flipping on lots of different art making switches to see which one might light up her heart and soul, and mine as well.

On long trips across the west from California to Minnesota and back we’d read out loud. Books have always been piled everywhere in the house, and the public library always an extension of our living room. I brought my daughter to our local Catholic church for Sunday mass and religious instruction, and we’d drive out to the Buddhist “family meditation day” at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Marin County. I wanted to figure out ways that I could spend more time out there, not because I had some bigger idea about training her in Buddhism. And because I wanted to save our budget and liked eating in more than eating out, I cooked several family meals a week and taught her how to help out in the kitchen.

These were all part of the routines of her growing up years.

Since project-making and how-to’s were, I imagined, special transmissions from some deeper place from me to her, it never occurred to me that making art and getting to be really skillful at it would have so little interest for her when she eventually grew up.

Now, I notice that she only goes to movies, museums, galleries or performances with friends or a date. Being out with friends is the most important part, and the content of the work is peripheral to the social experience.  I find it amusing that, while in college now, she’s never taken an art, music or literature class.

She’s turned in other directions — not rejecting the arts, just showing, if anything, complete indifference to their pleasures, either intellectual or emotional. The connection to culture that I thought I was nurturing with effort and consistency now lays dormant.

Recognizing this, I acknowledge my own impulse – often strong, sometimes weak — to accumulate, engineer and control my children’s choices. I’m told that it’s part of the parenting culture we’ve created to repel all the slinging of unwanted threats and perceived accusations that may come in adulthood.

Or, I ask myself another question.  Did I try to vicariously stay excited and engaged by setting in motion desires for new or left-behind activities when the difficulties and confusions of motherhood were sapping away my own personal sense of ease and improvisation?

Logically, I knew that it’s ridiculous to assume that we can pour “inputs” into our childrens’ brains and expect some sort of “return on the investment.” Yet, coming from another heartfelt place –mostly unconscious, and always repeating itself — I did want to demonstrate and give to her the kind of happiness I get every day from working hard at my kind of creative work.

Just like everyone else’s, my experience raising children has been an ongoing experiment, full of glaring mistakes and modest triumphs. Keeping at it, day in and day out, I try to stay as consistent and as lighthearted as I can muster.  The longer I do it, the less I wish for, and work towards, “results” based on external parenting ideologies.

Now I try to create a world where it is completely normal, and fine, to awaken my young son’s passions through the realm of the senses – through art and science, books, food and sports – in order to trigger new and unusual associations that are pleasurable and meaningful.

The hardest part of parental instruction is to teach values by example. And regardless if I’m aware of my performance or not, I can be sure that I’m being monitored closely as a model for behaviors to be accepted or rejected by my children.

And why are these thoughts and images bubbling up?  From this month’s posting prompt for our featured short film, Flamin’ Hot: “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.”

Observing the cooking and gardening classes throughout the Berkeley schools, I’m inspired by the teachers’ impulse to awaken children to taste, touch, smell, hearing and seeing – creating a temporary space far away from reading and math worksheets. Using cooking and gardening as the gateway, these teachers create methods and learning experiences to show kids how they can use all the tools of their brains and bodies to understand the physical world, and find their values and passions in life.

The science of burning down a Hot Cheeto ™ in 1 minute and 35 seconds is fun; and in the classroom, the middle school teachers can’t help but take a slightly ironic and comic approach to the topic. They know there is only so much you can imprint on to the brains of 6th graders who’ll soon be found in line at the corner store with their buddies after school picking up a can of soda and a jumbo bag of Hot Cheetos.

Yet.  Just this supposedly minor hands-on activity in school — the burning up of a Cheeto and unpacking its nutritional composition — might stick in one, or some kids’ vivid imaginations.

They might listen and connect the experiment to other sensory inputs they’ve experienced at school, even just from the food-related classes. Digging in the garden and pulling out a fresh carrot to clean and eat. Remembering the good parts of the school lunch hot meal that day. Or, tasting for the first time, a plate of seasoned greens that they made themselves in the cooking lab.

I can imagine a moment of hesitancy before the next snack purchase.  Maybe something more alive, more delectable in place of the Cheeto bag. Perhaps a winter season Cutie tangerine?  Even just one time during the week — and a new routine takes hold.

I’m saying that it’s the totality of little bubbling sensual experiences, day by day, that awaken the child’s awareness and ground their choices an actions – around food, the environment they inhabit, their family cultures and their emerging social values.

We’re experimenting with how our watch-and-share films at Lunch Love Community can offer lessons about nutrition, and open up new dialogues about food.

The films are like packets of visual seed we’re casting across the internet.  In our imaginations, you will get an “ah-ha” moment to download the films, and figure out your own ways to remix them into your menu of activities. There is no way for us to control how you will germinate and grow them, but the intention is there to share the results.

And about my young adult daughter who turned away from the arts?  She travels whenever she can, she loves learning new languages and living in foreign countries. She grounds herself in Catholic spirituality and Buddhist meditation, and she is becoming a good cook and confident writer.

Just like her mother.

Sharing in the Gift Ecology

December 9, 2011 § Leave a comment

How can we not think about gifts this month? Exciting, worrisome, disappointing or pleasing, the gift is the hidden face of modern living. I recognize it as a force to be reckoned with in my own work and life well beyond December. The hours I spend making and distributing digital works and social media while paying attention to digital culture that other people are making, now fold seamlessly into a gift ecology where work and life expand into each other’s spaces.  It has a real presence that takes me aback when I contemplate it as an ecology, not an economy.

I connect this to what anthropologist David Graeber calls creating the institutions of a new society in the shell of the old. He draws some of his inspiration from French sociologist Marcel Mauss, whose early 20th century ideas about the gift economy are being reinvigorated in the wake of our current economic disasters. As the Occupy Movement inhabitants challenge the logic of the marketplace, they call others to join them in shaping a Maussian 21st century ethos where one of the only excuses for accumulating wealth would be the ability to give it all away.

Lunch Love Community would not exist without a gift ecology that shelters and nurtures it, both on the internet and in real locales around the country. Our cluster of benefactors start with the BUSD cooks and administrators, chefs and educators who’ve let us glimpse and record their work lives.  It continues with the people who’ve given the funding to seed the work, and it grows, thickens and is completed by the individuals who share it — our users and audiences.

Watch But Is It Replicable?  and you may notice what we are seeing in the Central Kitchen at King Middle School: professionals working hard to refine ideas about how to transform children’s eating habits, and help insure they grow into healthy, long-living adults. They make time to share their experiences and practices that work because what they do here will make it less scary and daunting for others to follow.

There are the baby steps to take. Then, over time, because these changes usually happen slowly, a new ethos is supported and it becomes real, rooted and integrated. And more quickly than seems possible, a next generation of students will feel it is completely appropriate and desirable to be cooking in their classrooms, picking greens in their schoolyard gardens, and looking forward every day to a freshly made, hot meal in a pleasant school dining space.

This is a living prototype that changes and grows, month by month.  Since we made “But Is It Replicable?,” the concept has evolved.  It is much more than trying to figure out whether what is being done in Berkeley can be replicated as a cut-and-paste solution. This story serves as inspiration for communities to demand the impossible and work towards it: a new community ethos for the 21st century.  And there is no better place to start than with the food are children are served every day, at school.

Our work as documentary filmmakers, and the work being done in the schools to bring about healthy eating habits happen to be intertwined – through an ethos of creating new spaces among the shells of the old.

When you watch and share our Lunch Love Community films you are also participating in our evolving gift ecology. We exchange ideas and feelings, hunches and actions.  We circulate prototypes to be tinkered with and improved.  We are playing with the tools of the internet in order to reach people we would never be able to otherwise.

Something tells me that in this very dark, but open and creative moment in our social order, we must explore pathways to circulate critical knowledge, real goods and useful services just outside the grip of free market logic. And this simple act furthers both the givers and recipients at the same time.

The internet is free and open now. It is the most accessible gift ecology alternative we have for the moment.  Imagine the results in a Marcel Mauss-inspired world where the highest values would be “the joy of giving in public, the delight in artistic expenditure, and the pleasure of hospitality in public or private feast.”

This kind of intentional and generous giving means that we want you to get involved and connected too.  If “But Is It Replicable?” and our other films help you to join our effort and share what you learn and love with others, then what might we accomplish when all these little acts of generosity coalesce in an expanding burst of energy and willpower?

Sharing Food, Shaping Policy

November 21, 2011 § 3 Comments

[The food movement] has the potential to transform not just the way we eat but the way we understand our world, including ourselves.  And that vast power is just beginning to erupt.  France Moore Lappe

Attending a local Food Policy Council meeting is a prescription for fending off recession blues, climate change worries, dread about the next presidential election, and how to pay my recent $260 parking ticket.

Where I live in Berkeley, this council first convened itself in 1998 from indignation that children were not being fed properly in the public schools, and that all citizens did not enjoy food security in a region blessed with abundance from the land.

Fourteen years later I look around the conference room in the downtown YMCA Teen Center, and see thirty people representing county-wide grassroots, government and nonprofit organizations who’ve found their voices as leaders since that first moment of anger.

High school and college students, young nonprofit and local government staffers, veteran organizers and food activists, along with several of the original food policy council members are moving through an agenda packed with action items. They deliberate, vote, and take on concrete, food-related issues that are impacting real neighborhoods, public or private gardens, and public agencies.

There are reports and presentations. Three 18 year-old students from Farm Fresh Choice tell us about their project to draft a Youth Food Bill of Rights. From The Ecology Center Martin Borque leads the Food Day planning session and Gwen Loeb explains the neighborhood Kitchen Table Talks series.  There is discussion about the policy to allow people to sell their backyard produce.

The impulse to create social change through the food justice pathway focuses this group of farsighted individuals. Collaborating and organizing is a strong current of interest here and one of the only ways to survive these hard times.

This impulse flows with a strong current of public awareness building.  Restoring people’s ability to provide food for their families, and figuring out ways to bring individuals together in community in order to produce deep change, action by action, over years is in the long view for council members.

It never occurs to me that I’m wasting my time here in another meeting. Food is the bond I can share with people I don’t know. I’ll leave the meeting energized, knowing that the thread of this work thickens and lengthens when I make a meal with neighbors and talk; or take a bumper crop of figs from the backyard tree to local crop swap on a November evening. Pleasure and sensuality are the secret weapon of food politics.

The smart and strategic young people packing the room are transforming this movement. They work in community gardens and they work on farms.  They draft policy statements and plan strategies for change at the state legislative level.  They make surveys, collect evidence and gather data to prove that there is justice in having a strong local food system available to everyone. They are entrepreneurs who believe that healthy local and inexpensive eating is a human right that they are more than willing to fight for and educate others about.

Like the original food policy council members, they ignore opponents who brush off this work as a ‘nice’ middle-class phenomenon.  Giving time and attention to food system change is one way to find a voice, they say, to broaden the focus on the bigger picture.  The food justice movement is quickly discovering new ways to pressure corporate power, gain all workers a living wage and safe workplace, and demand that good health and nutrition is a basic American right.

By early afternoon we all are gone, back to our jobs — promising to stay connected on a regular basis, and take part in actions that will change upcoming legislation. No matter how much I think I already know about this subject, everyday I learn a new fragment of information that changes my relationship to food and strengthens my basic food choices to ethics, spiritual values and most importantly, my own acts towards combating isolation and despair at the state of the world.

I’m now writing this in November 2011, the peak of harvest and eating season for most of us.  Food security is on everyone’s minds this autumn — the inaugural Food Day launched on October 24, and the 2011 Community Food Security Conference just ended in Oakland. The great thing about the Berkeley Food Policy Council is that it was generated from frustration with how children were eating in the schools. And now, a growing cohort of those kids are leading it into courageous new directions.

Their determination and actions ask us to listen to what food tells us about ourselves, how we understand the world, and how to make those changes, one mouth and one meal at a time.

Just like the process of cooking and …making films like Feeding the Body Politic.

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