Bringing educational thought to public school lunch: Alice waters and the edible schoolyard.

Author:Laird, Susan

... if the business of preparing meals is the job of women, servants, slaves (and of course women are in all those categories), then food, the sense of taste, and gustatory appetites reside in the wrong social place to merit much notice ...

--Carolyn Korsmeyer, Making Sense of Taste

Food is the one central thing about human experience that can open up both our senses and our conscience to our place in the world.

--Alice Waters (1)

Inspired and led by restaurant owner Alice Waters, the Edible Schoolyard (henceforth ESY) has been rethinking public school lunch over the past seventeen years at Berkeley's Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School. With explicitly acknowledged precedents in "Waldorf schools and Montessori schools, among others" (Waters, 2005), this project came about through King School principal Neil Smith's plea for Waters' partnership in 1995-and through their subsequent adventurous collaborations with a gardener, a cook, teachers, students, and parents as well, with innovative leadership from the Chez Panisse Foundation. A former school-teacher, Waters formulated its starting premise:

Right there, in the middle of every school day, lies time and energy already devoted to the feeding of children. We have the power to turn that daily school lunch from an afterthought into a joyous education, a way of caring for our health, our environment, and our community. (Waters, 2008, pp. 50-51)

Having begun thus at King School, ESY has spawned the Berkeley School Lunch Initiative, whose administrative story Lunch Matters details (Chez Panisse Foundation, 2008). Other educational institutions are now also participating variously in ESY, at 2,131 locations in the U.S. and around the world, including 2,033 garden classrooms, 411 academic classrooms, 330 kitchen classrooms, and 211 school cafeterias. (2) This well-documented, still-developing work of educational imagination has captured Michelle Obama's attention, and Robert Lee Grant has documented its influence on New Orleans' Green Charter School in his award-winning film Nourishing the Kids of Katrina (Grant, 2009). Besides that film, some short online videos, and a guided tour of ESY in April 2013, my main primary sources for this case study are Waters' photographically illustrated book Edible Schoolyard (2008), Chez Panisse Foundation's Ten Years of Education (2005), and ESYs own website. Thomas McNamee's hefty 2007 biography, Alice Waters and Chez Panisse, documents Waters' profound indebtedness to canonical educational wisdom seldom included in contemporary teacher or principal education and other cultural sources of inspiration. Rather than construct from this case a new grand narrative of educational theory to reform public schooling through commercial partnership, I want simply to suggest a variety of possible ways philosophers of education might approach and think about school lunch as a consequence of studying ESY. As climate change challenges this entire planet, could such study renew educational thought about public childrearing and coeducation that theorizes education as nourishment?

  1. Around the Philosophical Block to the Edible Schoolyard

    My epigraph by Alice Waters comes from Frances Moore Lappe's Hope's Edge (2003). Reading that book a decade ago piqued my first curiosity about King School's reconfiguration of its playground, lunch, and academic curriculum as The Edible Schoolyard, which Lappe (quoting Waters) had titled "the delicious revolution" (Lappe, 2003, pp. 37-62). This grassroots locavore initiative--now an international educational reform movement inspired by the Slow Food movement, aiming "to turn the public schools into Slow Schools" (Waters, 2005, p. 6)--came to interest me philosophically as a consequence of thinking I began about three decades ago. I wondered if this creative educational experiment that Lappe had described might pose philosophical questions about education--just as teachers' experimentation at the University of Chicago's Laboratory School had deepened John Dewey's thought about education and democracy while also enabling women's collaborative construction of home economics as a new field integral to coeducation's curricular development for sex equality (Laird, 1988). "Eco-gastronomy" is the new subject matter that ESTs "edible education" teaches, bringing together food, aesthetics, and an ethic of sustainability to celebrate "diversity, tradition, character, and what its founder, Carlo Petrini, calls 'quiet material pleasure'" (Waters, 2005, p. 6). If you have read the rich documentary account of the Chicago Lab School authored by teachers Katherine Camp Mayhew and Anna Camp Edwards, who had joined Ellen Swallow Richards and others in founding home economics at the Lake Placid Conference, (3) you may remember that the Lab School's children kept a garden, experimented in a kitchen, and hosted a hospitable lunch table, studying geography, history, science, and arts all the while (Mayhew & Edwards, 1936). In the wake of U.S. education's dis-investment in home economics specifically for girls and women, coeducational eco-gastronomy reconfigures such pragmatist school-foodways for the present climate-change era.

    In the last century home economists brought arts and sciences to bear upon the study of child development, various sorts of design, textile and food sciences, nutrition, and human services. Thus the home economics profession led the nation to see concerns about education, health, and welfare as inextricably intertwined--and therefore to care about school lunch. But the year that I became certified to teach high school, 1979, U.S. Congress reconfigured federal government to disjoin the domain of educational policy from that of health and welfare policy. That move, fraught with philosophical problems for public education scarcely yet considered, set the stage for such administrative tyrannies as "A Nation at Risk" and "No Child Left Behind." My doctoral research responsive to the former tyranny constituted a major prelude to my interest in ESY two decades later, amid the latter tyranny. For I began my dissertation Maternal Teaching and Maternal Teachings (Laird, 1988, pp. 33-39) by narrating a clear case of a philosophically neglected concept that I called "in loco parentis teaching": a composite autobiographical vignette about my lunchtime cafeteria duty as a high school teacher. Anyone who has taught in a large regional public high school like mine knows that such duty may present challenges such as unhappy students who are rude to cafeteria servers and don't bus their trays; who make unhealthy food choices (despite whatever nutritional instruction health classes might offer) or, worse, have no healthy food choices available at all; who start food fights or waste or play with their food; who become racist, snobbish, heterosexist, prankish, mean, belligerent, or sick, or even have epileptic seizures; who come up to you and want to share a triumph, vent a grievance, tattle, joke, chat, or get advice. My school colleagues found such pacing-back-and-forth duty generally dull and irksome and, like most analytic philosophers of education back then, did not regard it as "real" teaching, which only happened in the classroom or library, of course. Forbidden to sit at table with students, I found this cafeteria duty often irksome too, but mainly because I did regard it as real teaching and felt frustrated by the way my school (like most public schools) framed all such in loco parent is duties, required from all teachers, as demands more for policing children's behavior than for teaching them to live well--an important conceptual distinction. I perceived school lunch's educational possibilities for the latter purpose were being squandered foolishly.

    By demonstrating that moral childrearing at home has involved teaching often conceptually distinct from teaching in analytic philosophers' standard sense, I wanted to invite thoughtful mothers' and teachers' generally silenced voices into consequential public conversations about education, to invite new critical and imaginative inquiry on childrearing at school and elsewhere beyond the nuclear-family enclosure. My dissertation named such childrearing "maternal teaching," but later I called it "teaching in a different sense" (Laird, 1994), and eventually I integrated it into my theorizing of "befriending as an educational life-practice" (Laird, 2003; Laird, 2004; Laird, 2010). My primary sources for all this conceptual construction were novels by teachers and mothers who, at a time when women were not yet warmly welcomed into academic philosophy of education, formed their own nonetheless serious educational thought carefully, into fictional art--Louisa May PAcott's Little Women (1869/2005), Ntozake Shange's Betsey Brown (1985), Sapphire's Push (1996). I found that in all those autobiographically inspired literary narratives of childrearing food figured prominently in learning--offering what in Making Sense of Taste Carolyn Korsmeyer has studied philosophically as "narratives of eating" (Korsmeyer, 2002), although some of these were also narratives of gardening, cooking, cleaning up, and fasting. From my reading of those women's fictions for girls coming of age to...

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