Part 2: Clean Ingredients
Part 2 of The New Century School interview with Chef Emma Novashinski concerns expanding awareness of what’s in our food—“cleaning the ingredients,” as she puts it. Read on . . .
TNCS: Can you talk more about the ethos behind the Garden Tuck Shop program?
Chef Emma: I really want people to know why, as in, “Why can’t [my child] have more of the things he likes on the plate? He can’t because that’s not how the program works in order to get your child a balanced meal. But it’s not just about nutrition or even food cost; it’s also about responsible portioning. The child cannot make the best decisions—that’s our job. [The program] is definitely the best decision you can make and take back some of the control over what your child eats. We say to the picky eaters, “Do with it what you will but know there’s no extras. If you’re hungry, try something else on the plate.” There’s so many different levels that this teaches them.
TNCS: How is the program going in its second year as compared to last year?
Chef Emma: Last year was hugely experimental; I pushed them as far as I could to try as many new things as possible just to see what I could get away with. This year they actually are familiar with the foods in the program so they’re not coming in and saying, “oh my gosh—what is this?”
TNCS: [In Part 1] you mentioned that your son participates in the program. How big of a role did he play in the development of the program?
Chef Emma: Well, I had cleaned up my own food source pretty quickly after moving here, but then I had Quin, and he had to go to school. But the quality of the food in public school wasn’t acceptable to me. I also realized that just his exposure to what other kids were eating and the peer pressure would have an impact in what he chose to eat, and I couldn’t really comfortably allow him to be around it.
Next I realized that not everybody has a choice. I thought to myself, “How can I clean his food sources, clean other kids’ food sources, and expand that to my community”? And that’s when I walked three blocks from my house [to the school] and saw them putting up a greenhouse. So, I offered to do the gardening, install the plants in the greenhouse, and then developed the program from there.
TNCS: Can you elaborate on what “clean your food source” means?
Chef Emma: Cleaning food means choosing pantry items that don’t have additives or preservatives or genetically modified ingredients. Walmart, for example, sells GM food. People think its easy to go there and pick up essentials or do the weekly shop, but are they aware that the food source could be full of poison to extend shelf life?
It can be very hard for people to see how to change. They might say, “I have to buy organic,” but there’s lots of things you can change without having to do that. All you have to do is literally “clean” your ingredients by using what’s in season, what’s locally available. This is where people can become defensive. I don’t want people to overhaul their lives. Because it’s easy to stand on a pedestal and say, “You should be doing this or you should be doing that,” but that’s not what anybody should be doing—they just need to know what’s in the products. And then, because of that, it would make more sense to do more cooking at home.
TNCS: So, using all organic foods isn’t necessarily a prerequisite for cleaning up our food sources?
Chef Emma: I wouldn’t say I’m all organic, and I don’t think there’s any point being organic if you’re still going to have a carbon footprint and ship your stuff over from Chile or California. The idea is that it’s natural. If you’re going to cook at home, for example, you would use more natural ingredients and not allow toxins to creep unseen into every aspect of life.
The program is vegetarian, however, because it’s logistically easier; if I was going to do meat, I would have to have a local source.
TNCS: It sounds as if this program might expand awareness back at home, too. What does this mean for parents?
Chef Emma: The parents have an opportunity to be involved because with a commercial kitchen and a greenhouse we can offer parents better options for ingredients. They don’t have to change anything they’re doing or cooking except that this way they can “clean” the ingredients they would use. There’s a practical level for at home.
The program is multifaceted. On one level your children have access to an all-natural, seasonal meal that has been home-cooked everyday. On another level, they have access to a growing space where they can recapture the relationship to food source. On another level there’s the educational benefit of learning what is in season by going into the greenhouse and having the practical experience of looking after the garden and even learning the science behind how plants work. From there you get yet another level because the children become more interested in wanting to cook food themselves. Next, you start to reintegrate family meals and cooking at home. Then another level would be providing the resources so that you don’t have to change what you prepare at home, but you can make better choices about the ingredients themselves. So, it starts to feed into the home that way. Kids will already be educated, speak the language of clean food. They will already want to make better choices for themselves.
TNCS: When you say “providing the resources,” did you literally mean come pick stuff out of the greenhouse or were you referring to educational resources?
Chef Emma: Both. First, Home Ec [or an equivalent] should be there; academia has overlooked the fact that you can eliminate so many [health] problems, like ADHD and allergies [evidence also exists for dyslexia, dyspraxia, and possibly some features of autism], with a clean diet. So that should be the first learning tool we teach kids. You can’t make good decisions if you’re fighting sugar or you’re run down. Second, parents can have access to the whole thing—come get herbs!
TNCS: So, let’s get to the nitty gritty of why the program is so important. How will eating fresh food that’s in season improve overall health and wellness as well as our children’s cognitive function?
Chef Emma: Bringing [this kind of education] back is important. People aren’t learning to cook; they’re not learning to garden. And that’s further creating this dischord between people and nature.
When food grows in the same environment you’re growing in, you’ll have a connection to it. It’s very important for people to understand that what’s growing right now is important. That’s why root vegetables grow in winter and greens grow in spring. Because greens have a diuretic effect that cleanse out the system, and carbohydrates that grow in the winter have this sustaining, comfort-food element. They pack a few extra pounds on you so you stay warm. In summer, there’s the fruit with the high liquid levels that are refreshing. Nature will provide exactly what you need physically and mentally. That’s another reason why it’s really important that we reinstate that connection because she’s there going, “I just grew mint tea. You guys just came out of winter, and I just grew mint that’s great for the digestion!”
We don’t even know the properties of our food. That’s crazy to me. Our food—our fuel—is the most important decision we can make to have wellness. People forget about that. They don’t associate food as a fuel.
TNCS: And finally, what’s your favorite food?
Chef Emma: Oh gosh, I just want to say bacon! I think I would have been a vegan spiritual guru if it wasn’t for pork.
. . . A perfectly lighthearted ending to some “heavy” ideas!
Epilogue: Food Fight
School lunch, as Chef Emma mentioned, can be a contentious issue, and it’s certainly a divisive one in this country, as one ABC news story shows. Not everyone has ready access to homemade, locally sourced food for one thing. Remember the 1980s when President Ronald Reagan tried to classify ketchup as a vegetable because it was cheaper than, say, peas or green beans to put in school lunches? Amidst current First Lady Michelle Obama’s 2010 efforts to refurbish the school lunch tray with a nutritious meal rather than an assorted array of bulk food bargains chock full of additives and preservatives, politicians are still trying to stretch the definition of vegetable and stymie her laudable endeavors. But pizza?! Come on. That’s not to say that pizza doesn’t have a well-earned place on the plate, but it should be disqualified as a vegetable on several grounds, including saturated fat content, the fact that there’s no such thing as a pizza plant or tree, and that no kid has ever refused to eat it. (Unless it’s topped with veggies.) Oh yeah, and there’s also the fact that if its tomato component is what supposedly qualifies it as a vegetable, well, tomato is a fruit. Maybe lobbyists should be trying to classify pizza as a fruit?
Though TNCS students are especially fortunate to have Chef Emma’s Garden Tuck Shop program, things are actually looking up for school lunches at the national level, too, with Farm-to-School and Fresh Fruit and Vegetable initiatives by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service because obesity and associated chronic illness rates are making the necessity of good nutrition impossible to ignore.
Scientists have known for several years that consuming foods high in antioxidants—that is, fruits and vegetables—neutralizes the damaging effects of free radicals at the cellular level and even promotes neurogenesis in aging brains (see “Nutrition and Brain Function”). The darker the fruit (think blueberries), the more synapses sprouted! What about for kids? Few studies exist on nutrition in the post infancy period of healthy kids, but they show that healthy eating promotes healthy functioning of all the organ systems, including the central nervous system, and wards off chronic illness. Micronutrients including iodine, iron, folate, zinc, vitamin B12, and omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids are all important for brain development in school-age children, and many such micronutrients rely on the interactions with other foods for absorption such as zinc and vitamin A. In other words, getting them from a balanced diet yields far superior benefits in verbal learning and memory than what can be derived from dietary supplements. It’s also true that better health fosters better performance in school, according to many studies. Taken together, good nutrition –> health –> cognitive function.
And Chef Emma was right that it all goes hand in hand: a recent Canadian study shows that young kids who cook or participate in the kitchen tend to independently choose healthier foods than do their non-cooking counterparts. Eating healthy at school reverberates at home and wherever your kids are faced with food choices. It’s an easy win.