Naked Lunch

By Jennifer Ward Barber
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Ed Bruske is a Washington Post reporter turned caterer and urban farmer. He's also a concerned father: when he found out what his daughter was being fed at a D.C. public school, Ed turned his discoveries into a series on his blog, TheSlowCook.com. On his website, now three years strong, he tracks the issues surrounding school lunches, urban farming, and food justice. Originally from a Chicago suburb, a few of the things he loves most about living in a city are neighborhood restaurants, public libraries, and walking to the grocery store.



How did you first become interested in what your daughter was being fed at school?

When we had her attending a charter school, my 10-year-old daughter had been taking her lunch with her. When we switched her to H.D. Cooke Elementary we were concerned because she started putting on weight.

But writing about the school on my blog actually came about purely accidentally. I didn't go in there planning to be a reporter--I actually signed up to be on the advisory board of the new D.C. Farm to School Network. After I got out of reporting and did catering for a while, I started teaching about food, gardening on a large scale at our house, building a garden at my daughter's school, and getting involved with D.C. urban gardeners. 

So I was sitting at a meeting with the school principal talking about school gardens and the subject of pre-made versus fresh food in schools came up. I said, "Well, you have a kitchen here where you make all the meals, I'd love to be a fly on the wall and write this up on my blog." I appeared the next morning and expected to see food being made from scratch. It was the exact opposite.

How did the school react to your version of Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution?

I'm sure from the school system's point of view this was the worst thing that could happen: a former newspaper reporter, who's also a parent, stumbles into the kitchen and writes this expose of what they're serving. The morning after I posted first piece, the phone rang and it was the principal asking me what I'd written. The kitchen director had passed it along, and the principal was a little flummoxed by it. Since then, the kitchen manager has been reassigned.

What are some of the biggest food issues facing urban schools today?

I was kind of bowled over when I watched Jamie Oliver's show. When he was wagging the little piece of chicken at the lunch ladies I said, "Dang, that's the same stuff we're serving here." What he found there is exactly the same stuff I found in the D.C. school. There's this bifurcation of the food system here: you have privileged kids getting the great food we're all talking about, while the great unwashed masses out there have to eat tater tots and scraps processed into nuggets and ammonia-washed beef with phony grill marks on it. They're getting the worst of what our industrial food service has to offer.

The parents don't go inside because they're not encouraged to. The "nutritional requirements" in schools have all kinds of loopholes. You can pack as much "nutrition" you want into the food, and it's still junk. For example, breakfast at my daughter's school is applejacks, strawberry milk, and Pop Tarts. When you add it all up, the kids are eating more than a quarter cup of sugar for breakfast.

You recently visited Martin Luther King Middle School in Berkeley, California. What did you learn from their approach?

After seeing the industrially processed, frozen foods fed to the kids in D.C., I wanted to see if there was a district doing just the opposite. So I called the food services director at Martin Luther King, bought a plane ticket, and flew out there to spend a week as a kitchen lady. I had the apron, latex, gloves, hair net--which I eventually switched out for a baseball cap from UC Berkeley bookstore.

They had me working jobs all over the kitchen, called the Dining Commons, which is about the size of a basketball court. This is all the result of an effort that the parents, Alice Waters, and the school were involved in to start serving fresh meals. They passed a bond initiative to build a new central kitchen and cooking facility for all 16 schools in the Berkeley School District. The place looks like a little lodge from Yosemite National Park, and it's where they cook meals for all 9,100 kids in the district.

I called my first blog piece on the trip "The Epic Chicken," because as opposed to the reheated chicken tenders most schools serve, Berkeley gets great big bricks of eight-cut chicken, which takes a total of eight days to prepare and serve to the kids. This is a city where people burned their draft cards--this is the ultimate in radical U.S. cities, and up until five years ago their kids were eating the same food the rest of the country was. The parents were really upset, and so through an inclusive, transparent process they formed a committee and worked out what they wanted to do. Then they hired professionals to come in and do it. It's the perfect example of at least one community overcoming this notion that it just can't be done.

Would you describe yourself as an activist?An angry white man, you mean? I'm kind of in a lather today because in my daughter's school this morning, you know what the kids were getting for breakfast? A piece of bread and some potatoes. The pre-cooked scrambled eggs from Minnesota that were on the menu? They didn't have them in. I posted about it and sent the link to the D.C. Farm to School Google group where it was denied--they don't want "negative stuff" coming up all the time.

Do you see a relationship between urban farming and the health of cities?

We may find out, in ways we don't really want to know, how urban farms impact cities. The question is going to be: Are we headed for a time when people are really going to depend on being able grow food in the city? Are we going to have a Cuba experience here where we have to turn our yards and rooftops and city parks into food gardens? People don't have the incentive right now to do that. The future will depend a lot on how we deal with the energy issue. If it gets too expensive to fly asparagus in from Chile in the winter, people might be more motivated.

As a fairly large-scale urban farmer, do you meet resistance to the view that food should be grown in cities?

I've had many interesting conversations with people over the fence stopping to look and talk about how their grandmother used to grow food like we do, people who have copied the garden, etc. But then you've got a few people who are concerned about their property values and who get really upset to see a farm in the neighborhood. I think most people are cool with it, but there are people out there who see this as something that does not belong in the city.

We also have a movement to try to change the law to be friendlier toward having backyard chickens. When I was in Berkeley, I stayed with a family that had nine chickens. We had fresh eggs every morning. But there are a lot of people who think that that's just not something that should be happening in a city like Washington. I think the resistance or support has to do with the individual culture of the city you're living in. I think D.C. is still finding out its food culture. 

Image credit: SpecialKRB/Flickr

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/personal/archive/2010/06/naked-lunch/57714/