National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Earth & Spirit
Issue Date:  July 18, 2003

Lunchroom lessons of life and health


A miracle occurred at the Central Alternative High School in Appleton, Wis. The miracle is not church-certified, but is a stunning overthrow of the status quo nonetheless.

In 1997 Natural Ovens of nearby Manitowoc began a five-year project to bring healthy food into area schools. Their goal was to show that fresh, nutritious food can make a difference in adolescent students’ behavior, learning and health.

Besides the food improvements, long cafeteria tables were replaced by round tables, creating a more relaxed feel in the lunchroom.

“I can say without hesitation that it’s changed my job as a principal,” LuAnn Coenen told ABC News in January. “Since we’ve started this program, I’ve had zero weapons on campus, zero expulsions, zero premature deaths or suicides, zero drugs or alcohol on campus.”

Teachers noticed the change as well. “Since the introduction of the food program, I’ve seen an enormous difference in the behavior of my students,” said teacher Mary Bruyette. “They’re on task and attentive. They can concentrate for longer periods of time.”

“Healthier food is better for you,” said student Cayla Schueler.

It’s not just teen-agers in Wisconsin who know that. America’s best chef tirelessly explains how growing and eating healthy food builds and heals the world.

Alice Waters is the owner-founder of Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, Calif., which she opened in 1971. She’s the patron saint of small, organic farmers. Her world famous restaurant was one of the first to have a “forager” on the staff, assigned the task of searching out the freshest ingredients available locally and maintaining links with the farmers who were growing them. Chez Panisse also pioneered the practice, now widespread, of identifying on the menu the local farms where the food originated.

Waters has been called the best and most influential chef in America. When you see the organic salad mix in the produce section of your local supermarket, thank her.

She often voices her worries about the fact that our nation tops out the obesity chart. “I think people just aren’t happy,” she said. “We’ve got money, we’ve got cordless mice. So why the long face -- or in this case, the humongous ass?” She thinks that we fill our spiritual emptiness too often by stuffing our faces. And since we have long ago abandoned meals shared around a table, even the stuffing is done in a joyless way. “Fat begins at home, in our refusal to eat there, in not sitting down at the table anymore,” she said.

She cited a recent finding that 88 percent of children in the United States do not eat even one of their daily meals at the family table. “The most neglected schoolroom in the country is the lunchroom,” she quipped.

Her latest project is the “edible schoolyard,” a program at a Berkeley middle school where the kids maintain a large year-round vegetable garden and also learn to pick, clean and cook their harvest. The hope, too, is that students learn such values as courtesy, generosity, thrift, reverence and respect for the bounty of nature.

Good food is just the place to start, she says. “It’s about pleasure. … A well-set table with a healthy, tasty home-cooked meal feels like ‘a special sanctuary.’ When the food is good, when you know where it came from, that’s an instant conversation-starter.”

Table talk, she thinks, just might put us back on the road to inner happiness and a cohesive society. “The table is really where we learn to live in community responsibly. We learn that others are like us.

“To me, food is the one central thing about human experience that can open up both our senses and our consciences to our place in the world.”

Eating for good health, then, is a civilizing curriculum. It’s maybe more important than reading, writing and arithmetic. We’re talking about survival of the spirit, promoting graced connections, and how hard work in the fields translates into success for teenagers learning to be productive and loving members of our world.

Related Web Site
Edible Schoolyard

Rich Heffern is author of Daybreak Within: Living in a Sacred World (Forest of Peace) and Adventures in Simple Living (Crossroad).

National Catholic Reporter, July 18, 2003

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