One Thing to Do About Food: A Forum
Troy Duster and Elizabeth Ransom
Strong preferences for the kinds of food we eat are deeply rooted in the unexamined practices of the families, communities and cultural groups in which we grow up. From more than a half-century of social science research, we know that changing people's habitual behavior--from smoking to alcohol consumption, from drugs to junk food--is a mighty task. Individuals rarely listen to health messages and then change their ways.
If we as a nation are to alter our eating habits so that we make a notable dent in the coming health crisis around the pandemic of childhood obesity and Type II diabetes, it will be the result of long-term planning that will include going into the schools to change the way we learn about food. With less than 2 percent of the US population engaged with agriculture, a whole generation of people has lost valuable knowledge that comes from growing, preserving and preparing one's own food. A recent initiative by the City of Berkeley, California, represents a promising national model to fill this void. The city's Unified School District has approved a school lunch program that is far more than just a project to change what students eat at the noon hour. It is a daring attempt to change the institutional environment in which children learn about food at an early age, a comprehensive approach that has them planting and growing the food in a garden, learning biology through an engaged process, with some then cooking the food that they grow. If all goes well, they will learn about the complex relationship between nutrition and physiology so that it is an integrated experience--not a decontextualized, abstract, rote process.
But this is a major undertaking, and it will need close monitoring and fine-tuning. Rather than assuming that one size fits all in the school, we will need to find out what menu resonates with schools that are embedded within local cultures and climatic conditions--for example, teaching a health-mindful approach to Mexican, Chinese, Italian, Puerto Rican, Caribbean and Midwestern cuisine. Finally, we need to regulate the kinds of food sold in and around the school site--much as we now do with smoking, alcohol and drugs. The transition from agrarian to modern society has created unforeseen health challenges. Adopting an engaged learning approach through agricultural production and consumption will help future generations learn what it means to eat healthy food and live healthy lives.
It's Manoominike Giizis, or the Wild Rice Making Moon, here on the White Earth reservation in northern Minnesota. The sound of a canoe moving through the wild rice beds on the Crow Wing or Rice lakes, the sound of laughter, the smell of wood-parched wild rice and the sound of a traditional drum at the celebration for the wild rice harvest links a traditional Anishinaabeg or Ojibwe people to a thousand years of culture and the ecosystem of a lake in a new millennium. This cultural relationship to food--manoomin, or wild rice--represents an essential part of what we need to do to repair the food system: We need to recover relationship.
Wild rice is the only North American grain, and today the Ojibwe are in a pitched battle to keep it from getting genetically engineered and patented. A similar battle is under way in Hawaii between Native Hawaiians and the University of Hawaii, which recently agreed to tear up patents on taro, a food sacred to Native Hawaiians. At one point "agriculture" was about the culture of food. Losing that culture--in favor of an American cultural monocrop, joined with an agricultural monocrop--puts us in a perilous state, threatening sustainability and our relationship to the natural world.
In the Ojibwe struggle to "keep it wild," we have found ourselves in an international movement of Slow Food and food sovereignty activists and communities who are seeking the same--the recovery or sustaining of relationship as a basic element of our humanity and as a critical strategy. In the Wild Rice Making Moon of the North Country, we will continue our traditions, and we will look across our lakes to the rice farmers of the rest of the world, to the taro farmers of the Pacific and to other communities working to protect their seeds for future generations, and we will know that this is how we insure that those generations will have what they need to be human, to be Anishinaabeg.