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Friday, April 9, 2010

If you care about learning, start with food


How a school (or other place of learning) views food sheds a lot of light on how it views education. And the other way around.

Mass-produced, highly processed, standardized, low-cost, and packaged products, engineered and marketed centrally and shipped out to be reconstituted at their point of use, while predictable and cost-effective in the short run, do not work. This is as true with food (such as frozen hamburgers prepared by cafeteria workers) as educational experiences (such as textbooks and curricula presented by teachers).

This comparison is much more than just a semantic flourish. Consider that:

  • Food is a uniquely perfect microcosm of learning. Anyone who does not eat well has failed in his or her own ability to systematically learn (while they may be productive in other ways). Which necessarily means that any instructor who does not eat well is hypocritical in trying to teach anything to anyone - he or she is a cautionary tale rather than a role-model.

  • Learning is impossible without being fed. The act of growing according to one's genetic blue print supersedes the act of learning. Students who are adding inches to their height are biologically different from people who are not, and the same eating schedule will not accommodate both.

  • Every stated goal of an educational institution (or real goal of a parent) is predicated on a student's life-long health, which requires good food as a foundation.

Given this, almost any school can be evaluated by the simple act of observing lunch. Likewise, learning environments (and accreditation bodies should take note), be it public, private, or home, must include the highest quality food in order to be credible.


  1. Thanks for making this timely comparison, Clark. Recently, I've thought a lot about the convergence of food and learning from three perspectives (economic, environmental and educational) in the context of local food systems. The benefits of purchasing, serving and consuming fresh, nutrient-dense, locally-grown/raised foods *should* be self-evident to any competent school administrator, but they are too often constrained by money and myopia, alike. The Chicago Public Schools (CPS) system is a case-study in nutritional and culinary malpractice, but just yesterday the Chicago Tribune reported some marginal progress in school menu planning. The news headline, "District reduces or eliminates nachos, doughnuts and Pop-Tarts" reveals much about the current state of (food) affairs at CPS:


    While more attention is now focused on local school-food issues across the country, there are some federal developments which could address a few root causes of institutionalized food ignorance. For example, First Lady Michelle Obama's ambitious campaign against childhood obesity (letsmove.gov) has, at long last, publicly illuminated our national epidemic of childhood obesity, inferring the causal relationship between diet and health to parents and school administrators who have, until now, conveniently denied dietary reality. Appropriately, physical fitness is the focus of this campaign but I'm concerned that they may overlook the cognitive benefits of eating more healthfully. The call-to-action of "Let's Move" should not begin and end with "Get Fit." The message should include "Get Smart(er)", too, which may appeal to more of our nation's children and inspire them to participate.

    I hope the First Lady's well-publicized "Let's Move" program will lend some political leverage and momentum to pending legislation that could address the economic and educational perspectives of food in schools. For example, H.R. 1324 / S.771: Child Nutrition Promotion and School Lunch Protection Act of 2009 (introduced in the Senate nearly a year ago and then referred to the Subcommittee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry) and H.R. 4710: the Farm to School Improvements Act of 2010 (introduced in late February and then referred to the House Subcommittee on Education and Labor) are two bills that could unify local efforts to improve the quality of food served in schools and other places of learning.

    Here's another approach: given all of the Federal stimulus dollars that have been promised (and already spent) on much-needed upgrades to our nation's physical infrastructure, how about re-allocating some subsidy dollars from industrialized agriculture into sustainable (and sen$ible) local food systems that feed our school children, thereby developing the "intellectual infrastructure" of our nation's future? Dollars spent on locally-grown foods could help family farmers, support rural communities, and deliver a significantly higher nutrient density in the meals served in schools, likely resulting in improved achievement and performance by children in the traditional learning context. Seems like a win-win-win-win to me... but transforming this idea into reality will require some serious collaboration and collective action.

    Perhaps the place to begin is a rendezvous for brews between the food scientist and the cognitive scientist. Let me know when you visit Chicago again, Clark, so I can guide you on a beer hunting expedition to some of my favorite Windy City watering holes.

    Anyone else care to join us? =)

    Jim Javenkoski

  2. Hi Jim,

    First, wow. Second, I see you know Jay Cross. I was just talking with him the other day, and we have known each other for over a decade. Third, obviously, this blog was inspired by "Food Rules." Fourth, my family raises chickens for eggs, drinks raw milk, belongs to a CSA, frequents farm markets, and I think I have created a variation of a composter that works better than most! Fifth, I believe the emerging realization of the limitation of an industrial model has wide ranging ramifications - with food and education just being two. I believe just as the same wave can independently raise multiple corks, the same shift in philosophy might quickly enable a richer ecosystem in all areas of our life. Obviously, it sounds like you are doing a critical job moving this forward, and I hope I can follow in the big footsteps in front of me.

  3. Hi, Clark:

    It was great reconnecting with you last week. I'm happy that you've transformed the contents of your blog into a book, which I'm eager to read. I recently became acquainted with a new preschool here in Chicago called Sprouts Academy that aspires to feature food (and food systems) in the curriculum:


    The Academy has been open less than six months, so I'll be watching with great interest to see how it evolves--from the dual perspectives of a food scientist and proud parent of twin soon-to-be preschoolers. I'm especially curious about how Sprouts Academy involves parents in opportunities to prepare, share and learn about local, sustainably-grown foods during meals with their children at the school. Both of those generations have been involuntarily divorced from the source of their food, so some authentic lessons in provenance just might elevate their food literacy and change their food selection behaviors at home.