What’s For Lunch?
To say that food is an important part of life is an understatement. In fact, food is one of the most important parts of life. It is nourishment, comfort, love and necessary to health and well-being. Anyone that has woken up at 3 am to the desperate cry of a hungry infant knows that this is true.
So how did food, this life-sustaining element, become so manipulated, rushed, contaminated and artificial? When I was a child one of my grandmothers was a cook at the local elementary school. She cooked and served real food to the children that went to school there. She was an important part of the children’s lives and many remembered and came to visit her into their adulthood. Both of my grandmothers had huge gardens and grew an abundance of food that they cooked, canned, shared and saved for the winter so that good food could be had all year round. I have many fond memories of my grandmothers and their gardens.
When I was a little older the value placed on food started changing. Mothers went to work, there were fewer farmers, machines started taking care of animals instead of people, the government started subsidizing certain commodities and big corporations were developed to come up with ways to use these commodities. Eventually, corn dogs became an acceptable source of protein and there was a debate whether or not ketchup was a vegetable. How did the lunches that my grandmother served in school dissolve into corn dogs and ketchup? I’m not sure exactly and I’m not trying to make a political statement. I just think that we’ve lost our way as far as food is concerned and now that the repercussions of these negative changes are becoming clear, I find encouragement in the many groups of people and organizations that are trying to make positive changes.
The Role of Food in Reggio Emilia
In general, the Italians are not quite so removed from the sources of their food as Americans are. As a particular example, the infant/toddler centers and preschools of Reggio Emilia all have kitchens and kitchen staff that are viewed and respected as an integral part of the school’s life, identity and even curriculum. Cooks are present at staff and parent meetings. In addition to preparing delicious and fresh food, they work with the children, help in the classrooms and are valued as professionals for their opinions and ideas. In other words, food is important and the people who manage and prepare it are equally as important. That’s not to say that Italy is not experiencing some of the same challenges as America in regards to mass production of food and the effects that has on human well-being. Nonetheless, in the schools in Reggio Emilia food is a value and a language of self-expression. As a result, they take much time and effort to make food and dining a pleasant, healthy social experience.
The Value of Food at The Nest
When imagining what our program would look like, we all agreed that we should prepare food for the children and that that food should be good, wholesome and healthy. In our little part of the big scheme of things we wanted to change what school lunch looks like. In order to do that on our small scale, I volunteered to be Chief Cook (well, the only cook) and I have to confess that I do love to feed a crowd. I developed a menu from the many cookbooks that I’ve bought over the years with good intentions, but never actually used at home. The recipes are simple – suitable for toddlers just beginning to explore table food – but delicious. We will always use organic milk, as much fresh produce as possible and very little meat and poultry (and we are a corn dog-free zone). The staff and children will eat family style in a real dining room with real plates and utensils and – imagine it – REAL food!
In our first week of school we have had fabulous success in the dining room and even the smallest ones that haven’t really eaten on their own before are quickly learning how to wield a fork and spoon.
In the future, I imagine developing an ongoing food project involving the children in gardening, cooking simple recipes and helping to maintain the dining room. The opportunities for learning are endless! And although I don’t expect that they’ll remember me when they are adults, I do like to think that I can have a positive impact on the value that they place on food. In that way, I invoke the spirit of my grandmothers. We’re literally taking baby steps now, but that’s okay. Each step is just as important as the next.
Bon appétit!Teresa Cole Administrator & Chief Cook