Animal, Vegetable, Mineral: Back-to-School Lunches, Part 2

Here’s the second installment on my reflections on back-to-school lunches. But first, I’m back from a “restful” Labor Day weekend (aren’t oxymorons a hoot?) with an exciting report on the local food front. Yesterday, Alex, Alex’s dad, and I toured 4 local farms as part of a “Meet Yer Eats” initiative in Virginia.

Why is it important to meet the farmers who grow your food and tour their farms? Wouldn’t you be suspicious of a farmer who refused to let you visit the places where they grow, raise, or slaughter your foods? The event was designed to encourage people to drive out to local farms (most of whom bring their wares to the local farmer’s market) to take a tour of the farm, see how the animals and/or vegetables are cared for, and appreciate the hard work that brings delicious (and nutritious) meals to our plates and our stomachs–nothing to hide.

18 farms in central Virginia participated this year (a dramatic increase from the 4 that participated last year). Within the hours of 10am and 4pm it was up to us to plan our route in deciding which farms to visit. We couldn’t have asked for a more perfect day.

Our strategy this year was to visit as many of the farms where we regularly make purchases that we could: Davis Creek Farm (chicken), Double H Farm (eggs and veggies), and Caromont Farm (goat cheeses); plus one new farm that we had never visited nor sampled products from, Albemarle Ciderworks (heritage apples and ciders).

In thinking about what I learned from this experience, I keep coming back to the notion of inter-connectedness. I got to hold a baby chick that might one day be my dinner. I saw how letting the chickens and cattle roam in pasture fertilized and nurtured the soil. I felt the compost which would nourish the vegetation which would feed the animals which would feed me. Small farms are themselves entire ecosystems, connecting producers with consumers with decomposers and back again. And it’s difficult to truly appreciate that without being on the farm itself–helping move the chicken coop, herding the cattle to fresh pasture after giving them a treat of local apples, walking the land, and smelling the air.

Holding a baby chick at Davis Creek Farm
Free Range Broilers finding shade in the midday sun
Alex feeds a Red Poll an apple

Bucolic? Sure. A bunch of city folks traipsing through the country? In some cases, yes; not all of us have the land to raise our own livestock, and an even smaller percentage of us possess the know-how to take care of them or butcher them. Elitist? Definitely not. I paid $10 for the three of us, and we didn’t buy anything (though we could have)–we just toured. Small farms help us appreciate healthy, sustainable food, and they remind us that until about the 1950s, the United States was once a nation primarily supported by agriculture. Today, agriculture is still a major industry, just a changed, even unrecognizable one.

And the reason I wanted to share these thoughts is to contrast them with today’s school lunches, which an even greater number of America’s children are set to consume beginning today; foods with which schools and companies look to feed the most mouths as cheaply as possible (chicken patty, anyone?) Sure, they’re things that kids recognize, but they know it’s cheap, unpalatable food. A good 80% of my 8th graders last year bought lunch from the school and wished there were healthier, fresher alternatives. Jamie Oliver’s inspiring Emmy Award-winning mini-series “Food Revolution” proved that schools can make the switch from processed, frozen foods that are reheated in time for lunch and move towards fresh cooking. Imagine how better focused students would be (especially the after-lunch classes) if they were served fresh, humanely-raised food without unnecessary added sugars and fats, not to mention how much healthier!

Certainly there are a number of schools and districts who are taking action to ensure their kids are eating healthier. The Edible Schoolyard is perhaps the flagship fresh food in schools model, but plenty of other districts are taking small steps to make their kids healthier, including Washington, D.C. who boldly eliminated flavored milks from their school lunch lines. Change is slow-coming, but if you want something done about your district’s food (or your child’s, grandchild’s, niece’s/nephew’s, the kid down the street, or whoever), speak up.

This is an issue that will be in our headlines for the next few years at least. And it’s necessarily a political issue, a social issue, a health issue, and an environmental issue which I have only just begun to scratch the surface of in this post. But, here’s my advice for packing more local into your lunch:

1. Brown-bag it: To insure that your kids (or you) are getting the best food possible, pack it yourself so that you know the ingredients that are going into loved ones’ stomachs. And if you’ve got picky eaters or budget constraints, start by packing lunch just one day a week–even that will make a difference.

2. Animal: Provided you’re not a vegetarian, try incorporating local cheeses, eggs (egg salad, deviled eggs, hard-boiled eggs, etc.), milks, and meats. Roast a whole chicken or roast beef on Sunday night and then finely slice or shred the leftovers for sandwiches or salads during the week.

3. Vegetable: The possibilities are endless. Chop up raw, local veggies and munch with a small container of ranch dressing. Make a salad. Reheat leftovers.

4. Keep it interesting: We are creatures of habit and always revert to our favorites. With that in mind, make an effort to try something new in your lunch every week.

5. Chew on more than your food: While you eat, take time to think about where your food is coming from. I’ve discovered that this simple task has one of two effects: either you’ll eat peacefully appreciating the hard work that went into producing the food you’re eating while almost tasting the fertile earth tied to it, or you’ll eat in confusion and paranoia wondering what exactly is in your food and how it got there. Either way, taking time to think about your food may inspire you to pursue wholesome foods.

Alex and I will definitely continue supporting our local farmers. But we’re interested to hear your thoughts on local food and/or school lunches. How important is it to you to enjoy and have access to clean, local foods? Have you ever visited the farm where your food is grown? What success stories have you followed in the news? Leave your thoughts.

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