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If integrating a school garden into curriculum can help teach kids subject matter better and get them to eat healthier, then I’m all for it. Likewise, I think improving school lunches and making them healthier are something worth spending money on. People like TV chef Jaime Oliver and school garden maven Alice Waters who are working to push these issues into mainstream deserve praise. Unfortunately, it seems that these genuinely useful policies and programs are being bogged down with wasteful progressive ideas.
Case in point is this paragraph from a recent Atlantic piece on Alice Waters:
…Waters recruited chef Ann Cooper (a.k.a. the Renegade Lunch Lady) to revamp what was on the school lunch menus in Berkeley, which then reflected typical school-lunch fare. As Director of Nutrition Services, Cooper banned processed foods and started making everything from scratch. She sought local produce, dairy, and bread, and, as much as possible, organic foods, too.
The first problem here is teaching kids to spend any time or money on organic foods, or spending public funds on such things. This may be good for the earth, but as several comprehensive literature reviews have shown, organic foods aren’t any healthier. Here’s liberal wonk and foodie Ezra Klein summing up the evidence:
The most recent data on this come from a massive literature review commissioned by Britain’s Food Safety Agency (their version of our FDA, essentially) and conducted by Britain’s London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. They concluded that a “systematic review of literature over 50 years finds no evidence for superior nutritional content of organic produce.”
Local is useful so long as it means more fresh, as fresh foods deliver more nutrition than frozen. But local for the sake of local is the kind of thing you worry about when you’ve got time and money to spend on luxuries; it’s not an important value to instill in kids, and especially not poor kids.
Waters and her organization are touting a new study showing that school gardens get kids to eat more vegetables. This isn’t surprising, but how much does it impact their lives once they graduate? Are future blue collar workers really going to take the time to grow themselves vegetable gardens in window boxes outside their apartments? A lot of working people, like Megan McArdle and Matt Yglesias, frequently don’t have time for fresh vegetables. Like Matt, many people have to teach themselves late in life how to make quick delicious snacks out of frozen vegetables. This would be a much more valuable lesson for poor kids then how to select the freshest kale at your local organic farmers market, or even more ridiculously, how to grow your own.
From every description of these programs I’ve read they have an obsession with local, fresh, organic, and growing your own food. The obsession should be on quick, easy, delicious, and inexpensive. These sets of descriptors are damn near antonyms.
If you can get kids to eat and prefer frozen vegetables then you’ve got a sustainable improvement in diet and nutrition. If you get them to like fresh organic vegetables they’ve grown in the garden or bought at the farmers market, then you’ve temporarily instilled in them the tastes of upper middle class people with enough time and money on their hands for such luxuries.
If people like Alice Waters and Jaime Oliver want wider support for heathy schools movements they need to purge them of the wasteful upper-class liberal obsession over local, fresh, and organic foods, and instead focus them on practical and sustainable lessons like how to prepare frozen vegetables cheaply, quickly, and deliciously.