Category Archives: The Schoolyard Foodie

The Schoolyard Foodie: The Oakland Farm to School Network

by GEHRY OATEY

The Center for Disease control tells us that 72 million Americans are victims of obesity. This post is not going to be another hope-squelching commentary on how fat we are getting in America.  Although there is substantial evidence to support that thought, this short piece can provide some glitter around a project that is helping to prevent obesity.

Every Wednesday, volunteer parents and middle school students run the produce stand at Melrose Leadership Academy in East Oakland.  Community members, teachers, parents, student, and staff congregate around each week’s fresh delivery of produce, much of which comes from local farms. Perhaps only at the DMV might you find people from a wider range of socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds in same place. In this case, instead of waiting to register their car, they’re keeping it real over a collage of garlic, peppers, tomatoes, avocados, onions, lettuce, spinach, cauliflower, strawberries, and bananas.

The food at the market changes by the season, and it isn’t uncommon to have an 8th grader and someone over 50 breaking it down over a tangerine:

“Is it sweet?”

“Nah, that’s on the sour side—if you like it like that.  Try one of those kumquats—they’re even more sour and tangy.”

The school market is the brainchild of the Oakland Farm to Schools network, a collaboration between the East Bay Asian Youth Center, the Oakland Unified School District Nutrition Services, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Have a listen to the following podcast and see for yourself how this market—and other school markets like it—are providing access to affordable produce in the local community, supporting local organic farms, and building community around healthy food.

Thank you to KPFA’s Imogene Tondre who helped to put this piece together.

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The Schoolyard Foodie: Squash is Camote–Dual Language Immersion in the Kitchen

by GEHRY OATEY

Dame algo good to eat.

Dave Chappelle just performed 21 straight shows in Oakland to an incredibly diverse group of people.  Some nights he performed 5 hours straight without a break.  And you know what he said he wanted to be when he was growing up—A TEACHER!!  He is of course a teacher in another sense.   He helps to relieve us of the multi-cultural boundaries that exist between us.

Which brings me to the importance of multi-cultural education in schools.  Youth need to identify themselves with where they came from and they also need to learn and appreciate that about others.

Regardless of where you are on the planet, food is an excellent tool for breaking down social and cultural barriers.  Dave Chapelle makes a pretty good living hammering away at our insecurities around race and gender.  If you visit a school cooking class, you will see that it too is an excellent space for doing the same.   The other day at our school farmer’s market, I overheard a brief argument between two students and a parent about the produce in front of them.

“Squash is camote.”
“No squash is calbasa.”
What you be calling squash? This is a sweet potato!”

It’s hard to stay quiet about what you put into your body.  Like language, the food we eat influences how we identify ourselves, how we interact with others, and how we interpret different tastes and experiences. Continue reading

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The Schoolyard Foodie: Keepin’ it real in the kitchen with middleschoolers

by GEHRY OATEY

Imagine you are 12 years old.  Your body is starting to do new and fascinating things like grow facial hair, smell, and change its voice.  Your emotions are bouncing off the walls regularly and perhaps there is no other time in your life when what you put into your body is of greater significance.

During your 20 minute lunch break, however, you choose an empty stomach vs. a stomach ache because the vacuum packed food served at your school encourages its own emotional response.  After the 6 or so hours of school, your diet has consisted of a small container of whole milk and an apple that was part of the school lunch.  Today is one of the two days that you take cooking class during the after school program; there is a distinct possibility that you will get to eat!

Today it is Tacos de Asada o Pollo (Chicken or Beef Tacos) served with Pico de gallo, salsa, cilantro, and limon.  Another student’s mom will be visiting the kitchen to show the class how to prepare the Asada. As the cooking and gardening teacher, it is my job to facilitate this beautiful chaos. Thankfully, this all takes place in the after school program, which has a completely different set of norms than the traditional classroom.

Here is a running diary of today’s cooking class:

2:20pm

Students line up at the door while the other classes exit—could easily be the platform of a major train station….

14 students pour into the classroom, bombarding me with their energy and voices:

“What are we going to cook today?”
“Can I cook with Maya?”
“Mr. G.! Mr. G.! Are we making tacos today?”

We go over the plan for cooking.  This plan is little more than a rough outline because when you take 15 middle school kids into the kitchen, every class is like a giant art project—you can’t be sure what you’re going get.  Mix the sheer excitement of doing something that is going to feed the body with whatever emotions have been stirred up during the day and the kitchen takes on a life of its own.  Sadly, it is not unusual to hear that most of my students have eaten very little that day.  Or sometimes they don’t have to tell me; when kids are hungry, their behavior changes. Continue reading

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The Schoolyard Foodie: 2012 — The beginning or the end?

by GEHRY OATEY

A Mayan elder told me recently to forget all the BS about 2012 (he didn’t quite use those words). No, the world is not coming to an end, despite all evidence to the contrary from Hollywood. According to this wise elder and farmer, 2012 is the end of another cycle; we are leaving a 100 year period of war and violence and entering into 100 year cycle of wisdom.  My Buddhist leanings aside… from what I see happening around food and middle school kids, I think he may be right.

I see it every Tuesday and Friday: ceviche, tomatadas, how about some homemade pizza with organically grown produce, sushi, eggrolls (heck yes—fried), sweet potato pancake caramelized and served with some fresh greens from the market… I’m not talking about what I eat at home. And I’m not talking about any of Julia Child’s 524 recipes that I wrote about in a previous blog either.

I’m talking about Middle School Kids.  Hells yeah.  Not only do they cook and prepare the food mentioned above, they run the weekly produce stand as well! That’s right—the kids are so “over” the food they are being served in the cafeteria, they will work for 3 hours outside of school unpaid in order to take home some fresh produce. They will even put on an apron and plastic gloves. Sure, it is a gigantic mess, but the crazy thing is they actually clean it up! How many 13 year olds do you know who clean up after themselves? For those of you who are down with middle school kids, you are nodding your head right now with a smile.

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The Schoolyard Foodie: Baby Got Snacks

by GEHRY OATEY

To Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back”:

“You want to put a big girl in a real good mood/ She gotta have some food/… So fellas (Yeah), fellas (Yeah)/Do you really like your women stacked (Hell yeah)/ Then feed her, please her, feed her some Cracker Jacks/… LA Face wit a big ole ass…”

Jamie Foxx is an ass

So that’s the parody version.  Thank-you Jamie Foxx. Why would I waste good blog space to bring you these silly, mildly offensive, and not quite funny enough lines? Well, one of my students was howling these lyrics as he marched into class the other day. Even after being repeatedly asked to stop, he continued to sing.

“Why should I stop?” he asked. “It’s a parody.”  That’s when he brought the video up on the computer to show me.  Of course I had to watch out of curiosity. The parody, if you can call it that, is skin deep.  I suppose it exposes the already sexist nature of the original, but it makes me wonder just what my 12-year middle school student is getting out of it. What I mean is, What does he think is so funny, and why does he get so much enjoyment out of singing it?

These are difficult questions for today’s teacher.  Two weeks ago, a 15-year old Richmond High (Richmond, CA) student was gang raped outside of her school while bystanders watched and took pictures.  With this incident fresh in my mind, I decided that a connection needed to be made between the lyrics of the song and the implicit sexism that it promoted. This kind of conversation is not easy. Even at twelve, boys have already been socialized to hold certain attitudes towards women, and that conditioning is hard to cut through.  I wonder if the boys involved in the Richmond High rape ever had a male role model sit down with them and break down issues of sexism and misogyny?

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The Schoolyard Foodie: Props to the People

How about some fresh tomatoes to go along with those fresh kicks?

How about some fresh tomatoes to go along with those fresh kicks?

by GEHRY OATEY

I have so far done a good job at pecking away at the holes in Oakland’s current school lunches.  The ‘hella’ stale sandwiches, reheated meals, and expired milk are, sadly, accepted as normal here in our district—as they are in many of America’s cafeterias.

It’s time to recognize some small strobes of light (to grab a phrase from the previous post) making their way to Oakland.  Thanks to the hard work of a few ‘fed-up‘ teachers, students, community members, and district staff, the I hella love Oakland community is doing something about the malignant federally subsidized food system.  And, yes, this post is meant to make Oakland School District homies look good.

It’s no secret you are more likely to find a liquor store than a grocery store in East Oakland.  This year with the help of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and in collaboration with East Bay Asian Youth Center and Alameda County Public Health Department, the Oakland Unified School District will pilot twelve farmers markets in public schools and make available an impressive amount of fresh produce to those living in one of our country’s most populated food deserts.

Oakland parents will get free produce in exchange for helping run the markets at school sites once per week beginning October 21st.  The markets will purchase pesticide-free produce from local farms (many smaller farmers can’t afford to get certified as “organic”).  At some schools, the students will actually take part in setting up and running the market! Food stamps will be accepted at the markets and their will be nutrition education and cooking demonstrations with the help of Alameda County Public Health Department.

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The Schoolyard Foodie: Desert of Youth = Desert of Ideas

by GEHRY OATEY

[Editor’s note: See Steps 1-3, 4, and 5-6 of The Schoolyard Foodie’s 12-step program to help schools rid themselves of their systematic addiction to processed food]

Step 7: We humbly asked Him (we will say ‘It’ for those agnostics sensitive to specific language about the Almighty) to remove our shortcomings in designing a school lunch system that fails to nourish our children.

Step 8: We made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.

In an effort to learn more about the causes of the public school dependence on industrial food (and humbly reveal my own ‘shortcomings’ of knowledge in regards to the causes of teen obesity), I spent a few days in Los Angeles for the biannual Obesity Conference that is sponsored by The California State Department of Public Health and the State Department of Education.

The conference was filled with a number of compassionate Public Health professionals (about 95% women) and everyone from academics, to health advocates, to public policy wonks aiming to tax the junk food industry ‘weighed in’ on existing and proposed ideas that could help reduce the number of fat kids filling our public schools. 

Much of the conversation revolved around what money was being cut from programs across the state of California.  This included funding for AIDS medication, over 200 state parks, and yes, of course, education and after school programming.  As always in the United States, there was an entrepreneurial spirit alive and well, as evidenced by the pre-packaged marketing kits from education publishers and tables full of USDA propaganda.  Don’t get me wrong, I was there to learn about my shortcomings, but making amends with this desert of ideas was simply not all that inspiring.

There was one critical piece of the puzzle missing here among the 2500 or so Public Health Experts.  There were no youth in the house! No voices from the youth who ultimately are the ones who will be spoonfed our bourgeois ideas on how to improve their bodies!

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