Edible History Book and Cultivating Failure Article Take Swipes at Local Food Trend

The local food trend has now become mainstream enough, that historians and journalists are seeking to put it in historical and social context. Two major examples of this are a new book on how food has shaped history by Thomas Standage titled the Edible History of Humanity and an article in the Atlantic Monthly by Caitlin Flanagan that critiques the rise of gardening in the curriculum of California schools, titled Cultivating Failure.

I haven't read Standages book so I have to rely on a book review for now to understand his take on things, but this paragraph from the review is revealing;

It may have taken a few thousand years, but farming paid off in the end - mainly when the majority of us stopped doing it.

Yet the idea that there is somethingspiritually essential about the land, that we should have a ‘connection’ with it, persists in a romantic, even decadent sense. The symptoms are there, scattered through history from the Romans onwards. For example, Standage notes, Marie-Antoinette had an idealised farm built for her at Versailles where she and her ladies-in-waiting would dress up as shepherdesses and milkmaids. Californians prize peasant Italian food more than any other kind. In India, a tourist village has been opened near the technology hotbed of Bangalore so that the new middle classes can sample an idealised version of their forebears’ subsistence living. As modern agriculture progressively frees us from the farm, so reactionary, anti-modern ideas come bubbling to the surface to draw us back again, to view the experience through rose-tinted lenses.

Whereas Standage's book looks at food with a wide lens, Flanagan tackles the very specific topic of whether the Edible Schoolyard initiatives championed by the likes of Alice Waters and Maria Shriver are of any use to the students in California's wallowing school system. She sees it as a example of a social agenda that leads school administrators to take their eye off the ball of helping students pass the tests that will give them access to higher education.

Here's her basic point;

I started to ask Michael Piscal, founder and CEO of the Inner City Education Foundation Public Schools, which runs 15 successful charter schools in South Los Angeles, what he thought about the Edible Schoolyard and school gardens in general, but he cut me off. “I ignore all those e-mails,” he told me bluntly. “Look,” he said, when pressed, “there’s nothing wrong with kids getting together after school and working on a garden; that’s very nice. But when it becomes the center of everything—as it usually does—it’s absurd. The only question in education reform that’s worth anything is this: What are you doing to prepare these kids for college? If I can get a kid to read Shakespeare and laugh at the right places, I can get him to college. That’s all that matters to me.”

That's all that matters to Flanagan, but she fails to address with any seriousness the issue of health and obesity that drive the Edible Schoolyard initiative. She glosses over the connection between poor diet and poor performance in the classroom with an anecdote about her volunteer work at a food bank, a random George Orwell quote, and the following summary;

The suicidal dietary choices of so many poor people are the result of a problem, not the problem itself. The solution lies in an education that will propel students into a higher economic class, where they will live better and therefore eat better.

Her thesis is that the only problem is that kids don't know their algebra.

My brief response is that growing consumer interest in local food is anti-modern, not in some romantic rose tinted sense, as Standage suggests, but rather as a reaction against the kind of simple logic that Flanagan proposes. She sees a simple equation of; kids learn algebra, kids get higher ed, kids move up the economic ladder, kids get healthier. But that's not the world we live in. Issues of health, education, economy and land are all part of a grand ecosystem of community life and the local food movement is one expression of an effort to re-connect our fragmented lives in meaningful ways.

The hour and half of curriculum time each week spent on garden and food education that Flanagan bemoans hardly seems like the grand flaw in California's education system she makes it out to be. Maybe it's one thing that is actually working well, amidst many things that aren't.

I'll respond in more length after I read Standages book.