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Food for Thought

Alice Waters and school fast food in America

On September 10, 2003, New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg announced a $166 million marketing and vending partnership with the Snapple beverage group. The agreement gave Snapple exclusive rights to sell water and fruit juice in New York City’s 1,200 schools. Estimates says the deal could generate as much as $225 million, depending on how many Snapples the city’s 1.1 million students and 80,000 teachers can drink.

Not long after the jokes began to fly. Pundits suggested a bevy of New Snapple beverages like Snapple’s Subway Tea® (a delicious blend of fresh lemon and human urine collected from the Times Square subway station) or Snapple’s East River Sewage Soda® featuring tasty hints of motor oil and decaying human flesh.

Despite the fact Bloomberg maintained Snapple was a healthy choice, reports in the New York Times claimed otherwise. A 360ml container of the new Snapple 100% Juiced! (created to meet rules that ban fizzy drinks, sweets and other sugary snacks from being sold in schools) contained almost 170 calories and approximately 40 grams of sugar, equivalent to a 360ml can of Coca-Cola.

So-called ‘Cokes For Kickbacks’ contracts appear alive and well, despite recent studies of childhood obesity, which revealed that each additional soft drink that kids consume every day increases the risk of obesity by 60%, no matter how much food they eat or exercise they get. Fast food has literally transformed North American culture, and the long-term impact of brand marketing and commercialisation of the school system is becoming increasingly clear.

While some teachers may quietly bemoan the hypocrisy of teaching the values of good nutrition while the school halls are chock-a-block with product placement, others are queuing up to work the counter at McTeacher’s Night – fund-raisers which have steadily gained popularity over the past two years, with over 2,500 schools in 14 Western US states currently participating.

At the Gateway High School in Aurora, Colorado the Partners in Education include all the usual suspects namely Burger King, Pizza Hut and Coca Cola. But there are other more suspect establishments like Hops Bar & Brewery, which perhaps sponsors the underage drinking team. Fast food in schools is a political hot potato but the attitude of the educators is perhaps more dangerous than the trans-fatty acids in Oreo Cookies.

Countering these market forces are small grass-roots programs like the Edible Schoolyard. Begun in 1994 at the Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Berkeley, California, it teaches kids the rudiments of growing and cooking their own food. The idea originated with activist/chef Alice Waters, one of the original mothers of American cuisine. Waters has been a leading light in the US food scene since she opened her restaurant, Chez Panisse, in 1971.

“At King School, there is a great deal of poverty, but the kids still have money for Coca Cola and Nikes” says Ms. Waters. “We’re told that cooking is drudgery, that it’s easier to just buy this cheap, prepared food. Drink coke and eat hamburgers. Billions are spent on convincing us of this, it washes over us constantly. It¹s not surprising that people buy into it and get addicted. I mean salty french fries are hard to give up, even I can attest to that.”

As the embodiment of the high-quality, seasonal produce philosophy, I asked her what she thinks about the Snapple deal and whether she feels overwhelmed by the sheer breadth and scope of what she is fighting.

It’s unbelievable, it takes my breath away. The education system is so desperate for money, that they will do anything for kickbacks. There are a lot of programs in California, but really it’s just beginning. I believe that lunch as a subject should be taught to every kid in this country. I think the Edible Schoolyard program should run from elementary school to college.

Although school gardens are not a new idea, they’ve enjoyed increased publicity since Delaine Eastin, State Superintendent of Public Instruction for the State of California championed the “Garden in Every School” initiative. Eastin was also pivotal in strengthening school nutrition as a fundamental key to improving a student’s ability to learn and California was the first US state to embrace the USDA’s Team Nutrition, a national prorgam designed to improve the nutritional value of school lunches in the USA.

The trend towards better food is not confined to elementary schools. At Yale (alma mater of Alice Water’s daughter Fanny of Fanny at Chez Panisse fame) students lobbied to bring organic and locally grown produce into the dining hall. “There is a degree of consciousness with this generation of kids,” says Alice. “They want to buy fair trade coffee, they want vegan options, there is a political awareness and a degree of critical thought that they apply to their choices. They’re ecologically determined.” Under Alice Waters’ considerable influence, Yale’s Sustainable Food Project launches this fall, with local farmers supplying produce and students collaborating on menus.

The University of British Columbia in Vancouver is beginning similar programs. “We’re working towards sustainable food programs but we’re taking baby steps right now,” says Andrew Parr, Director of Food Services at UBC. “We buy locally as much as we can and we’ve also instituted a number of other sustainability projects like a recycling program for organic waste recovery and Biodiesel, which turns fats turned into usable fuels.”

But programs such as these are wee in comparison to more corporately driven food franchises. Recently UBC allowed national brand food services onto the campus namely Subway, Pizza Pizza, and Starbucks because “students basically demanded them” says Parr. He explains it like this: “If there was a family shop selling sandwiches right beside Subway, and their sandwiches were cheaper and better, students would still buy Subway because they’re familiar with that brand.”

A truth reiterated by Eric Schlosser, the author of the best-selling book Fast Food Nation, who said in a recent interview: “Fast food chains don’t make an enormous profit selling fast food in the schools, but it’s a way of creating brand loyalty among these kids. And once these kids have the taste for the food, it’s a lifelong taste.”

Even France, the birthplace of haute cuisine, has been affected by the Fast/Fat Food message. “The French thought they could do no wrong in terms of food, but things have changed dramatically” says Ms. Waters. “Despite their little stars, they’ve embraced fast food as well. It¹s global problem. I was recently watching the story of the Korean farmer who committed ritual suicide (at the WTO conference in Cancun), and it broke my heart. Because he told his children not to be farmers, that there was no hope. We’re so dependent on farmers and this older generation is disappearing. I know I sound like a broken record but we need to support the people who grow our food.”

“You pay up front or you pay out back,” says Alice “but either way, you pay.”

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