When will access to affordable, fresh, healthy food, including the ability to grow it or know the people who grow it, be recognized as a basic human right? Seems like a no-brainer, doesn't it?
And in the midst of the snowballing good food movement, surely everyone would have to be pro-fresh food in a nice liberal area like my home of Montgomery County, Maryland, right?
Montgomery Victory Gardens was founded a little over a year ago with a mission to build a more sustainable, self-reliant, local food system here in Montgomery County – local food being the freshest and healthiest you can get. And we figured that, given the nation's skyrocketing incidence of diet-related childhood obesity and diabetes (sometimes referred to as "diabesity") and the rapidly growing school vegetable garden movement intended to confront this crisis, our own public school system would be a logical place to start.
But what we discovered, incredibly enough, was a de facto ban on school vegetable gardens, led by a Facilities Director (since departed) who referred to himself in public as "the black hole" into which applications for school veggie gardens would disappear. We started putting pressure on our County Council, which held a hearing, and then on the Board of Education. This proved enough of an irritant that the school system's superintendent stepped up to explain why veggie gardens – almost universally seen as great boons to a school learning environment, not to mention to children's health and well-being – were not allowed on school property. Incredibly enough, he portrayed them as hazards. (Food allergies and pest infestations were two prominent concerns, all empirical evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.)
It seems that a lot of groups in our county found this as outrageous as we did, because when we teamed up with the county's Master Gardeners to draft an open letter calling for an end to the ban, we got more than 30 community organizations, including our county's health commission, to sign on.
I am delighted to report that while the school system may not yet have religion on the issue of edible school gardens, they have at least seen the light, (or perhaps felt the heat?), because we are now working with them to create policy and guidelines for vegetable gardens.
Throughout this campaign we've been emotionally buoyed by First Lady Michelle Obama's very public advocacy for school gardens, which I've been only too happy to use as a rhetorical truncheon against nonbelievers. (As in "My goodness, even the First Lady wants us to do this!" Pretty much everyone understands, at least on a subconscious level, that anything the First Lady chooses to involve herself in is by definition wholesome, good, and beyond questioning.)
So it was wonderful to learn just before Thanksgiving that the First Lady was unveiling a new program to bring thousands of salad bars into schools. What could be better than that? Reading about it in Ed Bruske's "Slow Cook" blog, though, I was surprised to learn that three school systems had actively rejected this sensible fresh food program, and that one of them was – I could feel the hair rising on the back of my neck before I finished the sentence – Montgomery County, MD! Apparently those "child safety" concerns were creeping up again – fears that sneeze guards won't work for the smaller elementary school children, or that they'll use their hands instead of tongs. And then there's some nonsense about portion control, as if the ability to accurately weigh spinach leaves should prevent one from making sure the kids get some spinach leaves in the first place. (Apparently the USDA just made clear that self-serve salad bars are indeed permissible for elementary schools – we'll see if this moves the naysayers in our system.)
So just as the lack of school gardens denies kids a chance to learn what food is or where it comes from, the unwillingness of a school system to consistently serve fresh, local food robs the kids of any real connection to the farms and farmers around them – a fundamental disruption in the natural food system that ultimately harms our health, our economy, and our planet. There are obviously many impediments to schools serving fresh food on a regular basis, but since school systems are often the largest institutional purchaser of food in a given county, they have more than a little power to change that.
Here in Montgomery County, for instance, we have the 16th largest school district in the country, serving meals to 140,000 kids every day, yet we simultaneously have a very large (93,000 acre) Agricultural Reserve that, while it has plenty of horse farms and tree nurseries, produces only the tiniest amount of food for consumption by the resident population, school children or anyone else. Does that make any earthly sense at all?
Farm-to-school programs are a great idea, and the $50 million in funding for them in the recently passed Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act is a start, but it's still a relative drop in the bucket. Changing the practices of our public schools when it comes to food is going to take a lot of hard work, often one school at a time.
But there is a reasonable and sane starting point. Let's agree that fresh, healthy food – the ability to eat it, to participate in growing it, to know those who grow it for you – is a basic human right, in schools and everywhere else. If we can agree on that, then maybe we have a chance of reordering the rest of our dysfunctional fast food society to make it happen.