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.

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§ One Response to Like Water Over Rocks

  • Thank you, Helen, for the work you are doing, and for helping to connect those of us involved in the school food movement. We are all working for the greater good of all children. Though each school district is unique in its strengths and challenges, there are lessons to be learned from each other. There is no need to reinvent the wheel! Thanks for your support. Carrie

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