Friday, February 11, 2011

Novel Food 2011: School Lunch Edition

As I alluded to before, I've decided to write in entry for Novel Food, a celebration of food and literature organized by the blogger who writes Champaign Taste, which is a blog I've actually been quietly lurking in for years now. The Novel Food roundup always interested me, but I was never actually able to get it together in time to enter anything. Well, now I have, in a slightly unorthodox way.

When I thought about what I wanted to make for Novel Food, I thought about the books I've been reading, and then I realized that I have just not been reading a lot of fiction lately. I've really become immersed in the world of nonfiction over the past year or so, and my inspiration for Novel Food tended to lie more in those works. I finally chose to make something inspired by the book I'm currently reading: How to Walk to School:Blueprint for a Neighborhood School Renaissance by Jacqueline Edelberg and Susan Kurland. The rules of Novel Food stipulate that the book you read doesn't have to be about food, and true to form my book doesn't mention food anywhere in it (at least not so far; I haven't actually finished the book). Instead, How to Walk to School is a book about school reform based on organizing your community to enhance the quality of already-existing neighborhood schools, which are frequently left behind as parents are taken in by the allure of shiny new charter schools popping up, and leaving the poorest families (who cannot afford to send their children to any other school) to send their children to a school that the community has given up on. The book is an inspiring story of what happens when a group of parents decides to galvanize their resources and turn their school into a better place, and I think it's worth a read, not just by those in the educational system but by communities in general.

So what made me want to cook for this book? Well, it dovetailed very nicely with where my life is now. I am currently working on my practicum (think student teaching) in a high school, dividing my time between two different special education classrooms. One classroom consists of kids with emotional and behavioral disorders, and one is primarily children with more severe physical and intellectual disabilities. Being in the schools all day puts me right in line with a pivotal issue in the education and development of young people: that of what they're eating. I've always been a hardcore supporter of more nutritionally appropriate food in the schools, so this is on my mind frequently.

A couple days after I decided to participate in Novel Food, I was in my Emotional/Behavioral classroom putting up the school lunch menu for March underneath the February menu. As I looked at this month's menu, I noticed all the usual unhealthy suspects: pizza, burgers, chicken nuggets, etc. Then I noticed that for that day, the main course was listed as "cheese sticks". I'm assuming these cheese sticks are fried, much like mozzarella sticks. Note to my school: cheese sticks are not a main course!! Especially when it seemed clear that the school had barely tried to squeeze in a fruit and vegetable side option, neither of which looked at all appetizing. I discussed the issue with my students, and one said "the only thing on the menu I care about is the cheese sticks", to which all the other students nodded. Sorry, buddy. Cheese sticks are not a meal.

Then it came to me what I wanted to do for Novel Food: I wanted to create the school lunch I wished all my kids would be interested in eating. I'm not saying it's what my kids would eat, even if it were offered, but it's what I wish they would eat. I was a woman on a mission. I went out to the grocery store and bought a bunch of vegetables: mushrooms, a green bell pepper, zucchini. I bought some pita pockets and a can of chickpeas (I prefer to buy dried ones and then soak them and cook them myself, but I guess nobody in my area does that, because dried chickpeas are rarely available at my local grocery stores. I chopped all my veggies into very small pieces and threw them in a pan to saute in a little olive oil.

Then I added a can of chickpeas...

And after letting that heat for a while, I came up with my finished veggie mix!

This got put in the fridge overnight, and here's the finished product that I ate the next day for lunch. I also brought 2 homemade oatmeal cookies, and a handful of dried apricots. At school there was some kind of snack thing available for staff, so I snagged a Quaker Chewy Peanut Butter and Chocolate Chip bar as well.

This is what I wish my kids would be eating. That sandwich is packed with delicious chickpea protein (I was actually going to make hummus, but I didn't feel like breaking out the food processor the night before), the veggies are full of nutrients, and there's plenty of carbs and sweet stuff to have on the side with the fruit and the cookies (plus the surprise extra protein and sugar in the granola bar). What did I drink with it? Water. I can't go anywhere without a giant bottle of water.

I know my kids would probably not touch this stuff now, even if it was in front of them. But maybe they would if we taught our kids from the beginning that vegetables were delicious. If we raised our kids to drink water more than soda. If gardening and growing your own food was more heavily emphasized both in school and at home. If kids had a more consistent knowledge of is and is not healthy for them. If fast food were not quite so prevalent, or if local and fresh produce were more readily available to families whose socioeconomic status currently prohibits them from offering such options to their children. My job is to care about my kids, and that includes being concerned about what they eat. Maybe one day I'll be teaching in a world where my students will eat this stuff for lunch every day, and I think they'll be a lot better for it. But for now I just fantasize, and read books on school reform. It reminds me that anything is possible.

I linked in the last entry to the Novel Food roundup page, so check back in a few days and you just may see me on there!


Sarah said...

Way to go, you! I'll check the website periodically to see if you are on it. :)

Simona said...

A very interesting choice of book and also an interesting path from the book to the dish, via your present experience. I grew up in Italy and never had lunch in school, and I am not sure what the options would have been had we had a cafeteria. As the movie I mentioned to you points out, it takes a village and a lot of determined individuals to affect change in the school system, but it is possible. In particular, it is possible to change children's attitude towards certain foods. Thank you so much for participating in Novel Food!

librariane said...

Very creative of you!

I know what you mean about healthy eating and kids today. I host a church youth group every week and have been cooking for them (about 8 teens) and make sure to diversify their meals. One night was a Greek theme and I was surprised they were all excited about it!

gingerrose said...

@librariane: Thanks! I love that you have an opportunity to help kids get a wide variety of food. I was up on my soapbox just yesterday talking to someone about kids and healthy eating and how important it is for them to be raised with role models who have a genuine enjoyment of healthy foods. A lot of parents encourage healthy eating because it's a good thing to do, but they don't get sincerely excited about it. When I went to the grocery store with my mom when I was little, she would get SO EXCITED. She would see the kale and exclaim "I love kale!", and because I was influenced by her, I loved kale too. She taught us that broccoli was honestly an amazing food, and thus I was the only little kid I knew who loved broccoli. :-P To this day I have a huge love affair with vegetables, and it's because I was raised to feel that they are not only good for you, but are wonderful foods!