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Caitlin Flanagan vs. Alice Waters, Part I

January 14, 2010

In the most recent issue of The Atlantic, writer (and mother, I might add) Caitlin Flanagan takes on edible schoolyards. Flanagan attempts to challenge the argument that edible schoolyards are not only instructional and educational at an intellectual and academic level, but that they are also vital to a student’s comprehension of where they stand in the larger ecosystem and their immediate communities. In addition, she seems to write off the positive impacts that edible schoolyards have on improving and informing low-income children’s perceptions of dietary needs and nutrition. For years, research has indicated that obesity, Type-II diabetes, and heart disease amongst low income families and children are directly linked to their majority consumption of fast food, which to families struggling to pay the bills, offers a cheap and quick solution to breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Flanagan attempts to paint the edible schoolyard movement as racist and insensitive towards the children of migrant farm workers who may be embarrassed about what their parents do and may take hands-on agricultural education as insult, as a way for elitist Americans to suggest to them that weeding and harvesting is the only future they have. Though this is just one example that Flanagan provides, this is a complete misreading of Alice Waters’ intentions and of the goals that edible schoolyards hope to achieve (some goals: encouraging better dietary practices, appreciation of what farm labor is and the effort it takes to grow food, and access to fresh, mostly organically grown produce). If anything, edible schoolyards intend to erase the shame any Americans associate with farming and take our nation’s food supply and resources from pesticide-spraying airplanes, rows and rows of monocrop failure, soil nutrient depletion, corporate dependence and price-setting, and back into (more) caring human hands. Farming is important and it is something we should be proud of and are grateful for–and it’s hard to be either unless we experience it for ourselves. Flanagan believes that edible schoolyards are an unnecessary tumor feeding on California’s poorly funded and managed public school system, traditionally stereotyped as having incompetent teachers and apathetic students. Instead, I see it as a way to encourage students to care about themselves, and by extension, their futures and education. I realize that it is difficult for parents and single parents working multiple jobs to buy produce and have the time to make food–but at these schoolyards students are learning how to cook for themselves–and in the long run, when you add up medical costs and stress, paying a dollar for celery is probably better than the thousands you’ll end up needing to spend if you get sick when you’re older. Those costs will probably be more difficult to meet, particularly with jobs most low-income parents have.

For other opinions: several bloggers have responded to Caitlin Flanagan’s Atlantic piece in greater detail at Serious Eats and Civil Eats.

Thus ends my short and condensed introduction to Flanagan’s piece. I couldn’t help but voice my own opinions on the matter, but if you’ve got something to say about it and would like to respond on the YSFP blog, email us!!!!

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