Category Archives: education

Another Season, Another Redesign

Here’s to a cleaner design, and to more regular posting. There’s probably going to be less cooking and gardening around here in the future (if only because after eight seasons in this house, I sort of feel like I’ve written just about everything one can about my garden, and about what I’m eating for dinner) and more writing about books, and politics and economics.

One of the things I can’t seem to get out of my head is Shannon Hayes book, Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture. I wrote about it for BookSlut in last month’s column The Revolution Starts Here, and then the Bookslut herself, Jessa, wrote about it in her Smart Set column this month: The Home Front. One of the things I found fascinating about Jessa’s column is how different Hayes’ ideas look to someone a decade and a half younger than I am. I’m old enough to remember the hippies of the 1970s, the back to the land movement, and to have seen both of those not as a joke, but as a possible way of life. In college I hung out with oddball types who were leading canoe trips and trying to figure out how to support themselves without ever having to come in from the woods. In other words, I’m old enough to have come of age before Ronald Reagan, when the world still held out some hope that making money and buying stuff wasn’t the ultimate project to which one could devote one’s life (although I also haven’t forgiven Bill Clinton for repealing Glass-Steagall and allowing the banks and Wall Street to gamble our economy in to ruin).  I liked Hayes’ book a lot, and I loved the portraits of so many people trying to figure out how to live richly without buying into the fear-based money economy, the one that wants to keep us on the hamster wheel forever, always chasing that thing that is just out of reach.

But I have to say, a lot of it didn’t seem that radical to me. Anyone my age who wanted to be an artist or who never wanted to come in from the woods knew that they were never going to make much money. I like to say that I moved to Livingston because of Gary Snyder, who showed us all in grad school, by his example, that if you bought a place to live that you could afford to pay off, then you had a huge amount of personal and artistic freedom. One of the things I find the most touching in Hayes’ account, is how torn she felt between the path that academic success opened up for her, and the lived experience of that life. She’s smart and got herself scholarships and, like I did, went all the way to the PhD. — only to discover that the life that opened up for her was going to require sacrifices in her personal life that she wasn’t able to make. I know that feeling.

It’s unsettling to feel out of the mainstream. I’ve gotten more comfortable with it as I’ve gotten older, partly because I’m old enough now that I sort of know what my life is, I’m past that point where you’re always worried about what you’re going to be when you grow up. And I don’t know that I’d be as sanguine about it if I lived someplace more “normal” — if I was surrounded by subdivisions and shopping malls and all the stuff that I fled when I left California (where I was very lonely, in part because I didn’t care about any of that stuff).  I do know that it’s folks like Shannon Hayes (and Jessa and everyone else out here blogging about how to live closer to the ground) who are asking the right questions, who are finally starting to crack the buy-buy-buy ethos that have caused us, over the past several decades, to run ourselves into the ground.

The Snack Issue …


So I was browsing around this morning and came across A Year of Inconvenience, a blog written by a woman who manages a food co-op and yet, who after watching Julie & Julia, and reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma, decided to see if she could spend a year avoiding the central aisles of her own store, the place where the “convenience” foods reside.

Like a lot of these “project blogs” I would probably quibble with some of her definitions of “convenience foods.” As far as I’m concerned, canned tomatoes, canned beans, pasta, and reasonably plain crackers (I’m a big fan of the Stoned Wheat Thin) are staples. And I’m not really her target audience — I rarely shop the middle aisles, and when I do I’m in there for staples like flour or rice or pasta or beans, or Asian condiments. I don’t buy mixes, or “simmer sauces” — I don’t even like spaghetti sauce in a jar because it tastes too gloppy to me. I just don’t think about cooking that way, in part because I like my own food better than most prepared stuff, and I’m cheap — the pre-packaged stuff seems so expensive most of the time for what you get. But this is all ground we’ve been over time and time again.

What struck me reading A Year of Inconvenience is how ubiquitous “snacks” have become in our society. One of her concerns is replacing the snack foods — and to her credit, she goes ahead and makes hard pretzels!

I was raised by parents who were deeply opposed to snacks. We got three squares a day, and in Junior High and High School a very modest after-school nosh, but the concept of something like a “snack drawer” or “snack closet” in our house was unthinkable. Even after-school snacks were something like a toasted bagel with cheese, or homemade cookies (an ongoing source of war between Patrick and the not-yet-beloved Stepmother in junior high — she believed in rationing, he’d sneak them from the bottom of the tin). We never had chips, or store cookies, or packages of stuff in the house, just as we weren’t allowed to drink pop as kids. My parents were so pro-milk/anti-pop that even at the horse shows my mother ran when we were little, the catering guy, the legendary Mr. Pasquesi, kept those little cartons of milk in his ice chest for my brother and I, and wouldn’t sell us pop.

So the explosion of snack foods is something I’ve never really paid any attention to, and since I don’t have kids, I’ve been spared the tyranny of snack duty for school teams and activities. I still don’t fundamentally understand snacking. We eat dinner really late around here, so sometimes I’ll have some olives, or cheese and crackers around five (it’s a long time until our 9pm-ish dinner time), but the appeal/lure/siren song of snack products is something that’s thankfully lost on me.

The struggle with weight is one I’m not unfamiliar with, but it seems that this idea that we need to have food at our fingertips at every moment of the day (like the idea, pushed by the bottled water people that if we’re not clutching a beverage at all times, we’ll perish of thirst), is one of the reasons our population is growing larger and larger and larger. And perhaps, as we start weaning ourselves from packaged food in general — the frozen dinners, the “mixes” the sauces in jars, the horrible pre-cooked meals in the meat case (really? you want a pot roast cooked in a factory somewhere?), the snack issue will begin to recede as well. Once you start seeing food in boxes and bags as odd, and full of weird ingredients and too much salt, then “snacks” start to look weird too. I don’t know, if you need a “snack” make some popcorn — on the stove, in a pan, with a little oil. It’s really good.

More School Lunch News

More news about school lunches:
High School kids in Chicago protest the junkiness of their school lunches to the school board.

When school officials defend serving a daily menu of nachos, pizza, burgers and fries, they often say they’re just giving students what they want.

But you wouldn’t know it by listening to an angry coalition of high school students who plan to speak out on Chicago Public Schools meals Wednesday at the monthly Chicago Board of Education meeting.

One of those students is Teresa Onstott, a sophomore at Social Justice High School who last week practiced a speech that details the “sickening pizza, chicken sandwiches and nachos” the district serves each day and urges the board not to renew the contract for the company providing the food.

Kids who bring a sack lunch, are less likely to be obese:

Compared with kids who brought lunch from home, those who ate school lunches:

  • Were more likely to be overweight or obese (38.2% vs. 24.7%)
  • Were more likely to eat two or more servings of fatty meats like fried chicken or hot dogs daily (6.2% vs. 1.6%)
  • Were more likely to have two or more sugary drinks a day (19% vs. 6.8%)
  • Were less likely to eat at least two servings of fruits a day (32.6% vs. 49.4%)
  • Were less likely to eat at least two servings of vegetables a day (39.9% vs. 50.3%)
  • Had higher levels of LDL “bad” cholesterol
  • The good news: The Senate Agriculture Committee voted yesterday to increase the 17 billion dollar budget of the school food program by 4.5 billion dollars over the next decade

    The measure, which now must go to a full Senate vote, would overhaul the $17 billion school lunch program. It would call for the USDA to set new nutrition standards for food served in the cafeteria and vending machines, improve training for cafeteria workers and accelerate recalls of contaminated foods. Some 23,000 children ate food at school that made them sick from 1998 to 2007, according to USA Today. The bill also aims to increase the number of students eligible for free or reduced-price meals.

    The bad news:They’re planning to pay for it by cutting farm conservation programs while leaving big commodity crop subsidies in place:

    “Pitting kids against clean water instead of looking for savings in the much, much larger crop insurance and farm subsidy accounts is just wrong,” said Craig Cox, an official with Environmental Working Group, an advocacy organization. “It’s more than wrong, because it also reduces the increase in child nutrition funding that could otherwise be achieved.”

    On Hipsters, Food Stamps and the Permeability of the Poverty Line

    There was an article in Salon the other day that I almost blogged about, but it seemed like such as setup: Hipsters on Food Stamps. The article was a profile of out-of-work “hipsters” in the Bay Area, New York, Baltimore and other urban areas who were, thanks to the ongoing recession and the stimulus package, eligible for and using food stamps. Of course, the twist was that they weren’t eating “government cheese” but were using their food stamp money to buy fruits and vegetables at small stores and farmers markets, and were gasp, cooking fairly delicious meals from them. One of those meals was described, rather snarkily, as “Thai yellow curry with coconut milk and lemongrass, Chinese gourd sautéed in hot chile sauce and sweet clementine juice, all of it courtesy of government assistance.” Hmm. Sounds like a healthy cheap vegetarian meal to me.

    So anyway, I wasn’t going to write about this because it just seemed so dumb. But today I was cruising past Salon, and found Gerry Mak’s response to the story. He’s one of the so-called “hipsters” profiled in the piece, and while he defended his decisions about food with eloquence, he correctly pointed out that the original article was a smokescreen for a larger and more important issue:

    … the core of this discussion is an ideological debate between those that believe private entrepreneurship and simple hard work are the cures for poverty, and those that believe that the the poverty line is permeable in both directions. Among the latter, there is yet a deeper debate about whether we can, in a deep recession with record unemployment rates, make the same old assumptions about class based on race, occupation and education, particularly when increasingly, only poorly paid, unprotected, insecure jobs are available even to people with master’s degrees.

    As someone who grew up with many many advantages, especially those of class privilege, but with parents who were usually broke, I have never been unclear on the permeability of the poverty line. I’ve been broke most of my life, with the exception of the ten years I spent at the Big Corporation. I have almost always worked at least two jobs; I have advanced degrees; and yet, in every other job I’ve ever had but that one, I’ve been underpaid, and have worked in environments where benefits weren’t even offered. Until the Big Corp. job, I’d never worked anyplace where I qualified for unemployment benefits when the job ended, and it continues to make me crazy that the majority of the jobs I’ve had in my life don’t even qualify as “real” jobs to the government. So if, for once, unemployed, educated, white-collar information workers are eligible for a little bit of government assistance, and they’re being creative about using it, who are we to mock them?

    This is a deep and terrifying recession, and although I’ve been weathering it pretty well so far, let’s face it, there are real dangers out there. People are losing their houses. Kids are getting out of school and looking at the worst employment prospects in decades, but unlike those of us who graduated in the mid-1980s with similar recessionary stats, these kids are carrying tens of thousands of dollars in student loans. And it’s not just kids who are in trouble. There are a lot of people, like the author of this article in the New York Times a couple of weeks ago, “Off The Job, Slouching Toward Social Services” who have good educations, and creative professions they’ve sustained with the sorts of underemployment jobs that those of us who want to write or paint or dance or create theatre have always had — secretarial and translation and waiting tables — and even those jobs are gone now. I’ve been lucky so far — I’ve had enough freelance work to keep my head above water, and it looks like I’ll be able to swing a part-time contracting gig back at the Big Corporation. I’m thrilled that I can survive on a part-time gig as I have some creative projects I really feel it’s time to commit to and I’ve spent the past eight years since I’ve moved here paying things off and trying to get my financial house to the place where I can live on a lot less. However, even though I can do this, and I’m deeply grateful for the job opportunity, I’m still going back to a world of self-employment — no health insurance, no stock options, and should this gig end, no unemployment benefits. I’m going back into that ever-increasing sector of the economy where there is no safety net, and where bankruptcy and ruin are one broken leg or appendicitis or cancer diagnosis away. And that’s NOT the change I voted for, it’s not the United States in which I want to live, and it’s not the nation where I want our kids to grow up. We have the ability to take care of one another better than this. And one way we can start the process is perhaps by rethinking some of the stories we’ve been told about class and race and education and opportunity.

    School Food

    Hi folks — working on a really exciting redesign, so expect to see the maintenance mode page again over the next week or so.

    In the meantime, I’ve been thinking a lot about school food. The Billings Gazette had a piece about an elementary school that was about to start offering breakfast to all students. Which sounds like a great idea, except that I read about it right on the heels of Ed Bruske’s series, Tales from a DC School Kitchen in which he spent a week in his daughter’s school, and discovered fun facts like the breakfast offered contained as much as 13 teaspoons of sugar. Hmm. Breakfast is good, but is that breakfast good?

    The Bozeman Chronicle reports that the Farm-to-School movement is getting some additional support, but it doesn’t yet sound like they’re seeing much local food in the local schools (and no, selling “local” huckleberry jam as a fundraiser doesn’t count.) Personally I think a great use of stimulus money would be to rebuild actual kitchens in the schools, and, as Tom Philpott has suggested, run a debt-exchange with culinary school graduates to run them. They could learn budgeting and cooking for picky eaters, and the kids would get real food. Or just hire lunch ladies again. I’m a huge fan of lunch ladies.

    The way we pretend to use agricultural surplus to feed our schoolchildren should be a national shame. There’s nothing “agricultural” about the sorts of highly-processed heat-and-eat crap we’re serving them. Here’s an eye-opening blog post by a mother from Houston who gave in to her daughter’s wish to buy lunch (which was social in nature, the kid ate food she knew would make her sick three days running). She told her kid she could try school lunch for a week, if she’d take a picture of each lunch. Take a look here at what the kid was eating.

    To top off this little school-food roundup, here’s Jamie Oliver’s terrific Ted Talk. He can be a little annoying, but you have to give the guy credit for fighting the good fight for cooking and real food. It shouldn’t be so hard.

    Which Work is Work?

    Seems we’re all still reacting to the Flanagan piece slamming school gardens. Here’s a piece from Civil Eats that quotes Booker T. Washington on the value of physical work. The contempt shown by so much of the middle and upper-middle classes for people who work with their hands is, I’m convinced, partly responsible for the devastating loss of manufacturing jobs here in America. When you believe that work is only something other people do, and when you believe that those others, because they work with their hands and bodies must necessarily be inferior to you in your nice clean office, in your nice clean house (cleaned by whom?) and when in many parts of the country, even your yard and garden are tended by strangers who arrive once a week in a truck and then leave again, well, if your experience of the physical world is so mediated, then how could you ever know how satisfying physical work can be?

    Is the real fear behind this school garden backlash that the kids might like it? And then what? Is the real fear that they might want to be farmers or gardeners or carpenters or to actually do something with their hands rather than to march off in lockstep to law school or MBA programs (because god forbid we deprive Wall Street of another generation of those all-important hedge fund managers)?

    I remember when Patrick went off to Sterling College in Vermont, a terrific little school where he not only learned to write a paper for the first time, but learned to skid logs with draft horses, and to birth sheep and cattle, and tap trees for maple syrup (although boiling syrup’s not a good job for the ADD-inclined, look away at a crucial moment and it burns). That school was full of upper-middle-class kids whose parents were, in many cases, appalled that their kids wanted to be farriers, or farmers, or environmental biologists — you know things they could do outside, that involved working with their hands. And Patrick’s fellow students had, for the most part, spent their entire school lives being told they were dumb, or that they should apply themselves more, or that they just weren’t trying because they weren’t the kinds of kids who could sit in classrooms all day without doing something.

    What has 40 years of insisting that college is mandatory and the only path to success gotten us? A nation where we have no plumbers or electricians or even just factories that make things. A nation where ordinary middle-class suburbanites don’t even know how to run a lawnmower. A nation of kids being raised in front of screens and in the back seats of SUVs being driven from “activity” to “activity” but not allowed to just play outside. Hmm. Progress?

    Maybe it’s time to take another look at what Mr. Washington had to say. Civil Eats » Booker T. Washington on School Gardens and the Pleasure of Work:

    Above all else I had acquired a new confidence in my ability actually to do things and to do them well. And more than this I found myself through this experience getting rid of the idea which had gradually become a part of me, that the head meant everything and the hands little in working endeavour and that only to labour with the mind was honourable while to toil with the hands was unworthy and even disgraceful.

    …While I have never wished to underestimate the awakening power of purely mental training I believe that this visible tangible contact with nature gave me inspirations and ambitions which could not have come in any other way. I favour the most thorough mental training and the highest development of mind but I want to see these linked with the common things of the universal life about our doors.

    Forest Kindergarten at Waldorf School in Saratoga Springs – NYTimes.com

    Forest Kindergarten at Waldorf School in Saratoga Springs – NYTimes.com.

    Schools around the country have been planting gardens and planning ever more elaborate field trips in hopes of reconnecting children with nature. The forest kindergarten at the Waldorf School of Saratoga Springs is one of a handful in the United States that are taking that concept to another level: its 23 pupils, ages 3 ½ to 6, spend three hours each day outside regardless of the weather. This in a place where winter is marked by snowdrifts and temperatures that regularly dip below freezing.

    What a fabulous idea. Frankly, it makes me want to go to Forest Kindergarten.