Meeting Ed Bruske in DC (part two)

…Continued from part one

Ed Bruske was kind enough to answer some questions after our meeting early in April. I wanted to hear about his experience and expertise as a chef and a gardener and how that shapes his thinking about school issues.

Mrs. Q: Can you tell me a little more about what you are doing in your “cooking class” for kids?

Ed: I’m in the fifth year of my “food appreciation” classes at Georgetown Day School. I stumbled into the job when a neighbor who was running the after-school program there called me in a panic, wondering if I knew anyone who could fill in for a teacher who was a no-show. I thought, Why not me? And it’s been a great experience.

As well as teaching kids where our food comes from and what constitutes healthy food, as opposed to foods that have been highly processed and adulterated, we also cook some great stuff together. We do everything by hand, meaning no electric gadgets. So we’ve made our own pickles and sauerkraut, rolled our own pasta, stuffed our own sausages.

What I’ve learned is that you can never predict how any kid will react to a certain food. Like my daughter, they all have individual preferences.Some parents come to me so grateful. “Our daughter eats asparagus now!” they exclaim. “She would never touch it before.” But sometimes kids completely reject a vegetable dish– especially the younger ones–for the flimsiest of reasons. It’s a mystery.

Mrs. Q: When you cook with kids, what are some of the things they do that surprise you?

Ed: I like to challenge the children in my cooking classes and very often they exceed all my expectations. For instance, I recently brought raw squid to class so we could make fried calamari as part of our study of Spanish tapas. They were squeamish at first, but I encouraged them to touch the slimy squid, hold it in their hands. Pretty soon they were wearing the squid bodies on their fingers like jewelry and playing with the long tentacles.

We are in the third year of a culinary world tour and this week found us in France. I brought chicken livers to sautee for a salad with baby greens, crisp apple, walnut oil and sherry vinegar—ingredients we certainly don’t use every day. Again, most of the kids were initially repulsed by the chicken livers. But with a little coaxing, they did pick them up and hold them in their hands, feeling how squishy and slimy they are, but also pink and beautiful in their own way—a vital part of any animal anatomy.

I think it’s important for children to experience new foods with all their senses, including the sense of touch. I also think they should learn that if we’re going to kill animals for food, we should learn to eat all the edible parts. And I couldn’t believe it! Who knew kids would love chicken liver?

It just proves to me that if you give kids a chance to interact with their food and treat them more like adults—give them a little coaching and hands-on experience– they will engage and try new things. Kids love to do things with their hands.

Mrs. Q: What do you think about school gardens?

Ed: My initial experience with a school garden was building a 1,600-square-foot container garden at my daughter’s charter school five years ago. It was a lot of work—finding grant money for materials to build the containers, soil to fill the containers, watering hose, seeds and tools. We entered an essay contest and won a huge compost tumbler.

But the great excitement the teachers initially showed when we first built it waned. I found it extremely difficult as a parent to keep an active garden program going—unless it was myself doing the gardening. Some teachers used the garden, not so much to plant things, but as a place to observe for science lessons or to write poetry or to draw and paint. All great activities, to be sure. The school administration didn’t show much interest. It wasn’t until a couple of teacher’s aides arrived on the scene that we started an actual after-school garden program. They kids loved harvesting lettuce and carrots and turning them into salads. But then the teacher’s aides found jobs elsewhere and it was back to me, just maintaining the garden so it didn’t die.

The lesson, I think, is that school gardens need resources, structure and constant attention. They need to be part of the curriculum, and usually they aren’t. I have an acquaintance who is expert in this area and he calls these “museum gardens” because they look good in concept, but the execution is missing. Even in Berkeley, Calif., where Alice Waters has her “Edible Schoolyard”—a place where I’ve spent some time—the lesson holds: in order to have a meaningful impact, school gardens need full-time staff, there needs to be a dedicated cook to show the kids how to turn their harvest into meals. The garden has to be structured into the classroom routine.

A classic example is a friend of mine who was an art teacher and garden supervisor at the elementary school here in D.C. where Michelle Obama recruited so many of the kids you see in those photos of the White House garden. My friend said she and other teachers put their jobs on the line by participating in the garden program. It just wasn’t in their job description, and took away from the other work they were expected to perform.

This year she quit her teaching job and went into the business of building school gardens full time, funded by grant money and a new farmers market.

All of this—from building the garden to staffing it—requires resources that most schools don’t have. Before any meaningful change can take place, gardens need to become a priority in state legislatures and with local school boards. School principals, who are typically focused on reading and math scores, have to buy in. Without all of those things in place, it’s really hard to expect anything but a “museum garden.”

Mrs. Q: Do you garden with kids as well? Do you garden with your daughter?

Ed: When my daughter left the charter school she’d been attending to enter fourth grade I stopped gardening there and haven’t been involved with a school garden since. Unless the school administration is actively supportive, and there is at least one teacher prepared to lead the charge, I don’t think a school garden can succeed.

At my daughter’s current school, where she attends fifth grade, a really interesting organization has recently built a garden. As I mentioned before, my friend the former art teacher is now working on school gardens full time. Her partner in this venture started a farmers market in the neighborhood—not far from the tony Georgetown area—and a percentage of the proceeds are dedicated to a school garden fund.

It may take innovative efforts like this to make school gardening a reality. As far as my daughter is concerned, we’ve tried for years to get her out from in front of the television. Most days she’s had an excuse for not gardening, but she’s now getting to that age—11—where’s she’s much more thoughtful and cooperative. Plus, instead of giving her an allowance, we now pay her for work she does around the house. She’s currently begging for a chance to help me prep our gardens beds for spring planting.

Who knows? She might even want to get involved in pickling our green tomatoes in the fall.

Mrs. Q: Anything you forgot to ask?

Ed: I am very disturbed by the huge disconnect I see between school food activists on the national policy level, the actual implementers in the cafeterias, and the parents who seem to sit mostly on the sidelines. I fear that the new school meal guidelines currently pending before the USDA—the ones calling for more and bigger servings of vegetables, more whole grains, fewer potatoes and less salt—will create a a huge financial burden on cash-strapped schools with little to show for it except cafeteria trash cans filled with uneaten food.

The USDA has estimated the guidelines would raise the cost of lunch by 15 cents in extra ingredients and labor, and the cost of breakfast by 51 cents. I’m hearing that some schools may consider dropping their breakfast programs altogether because of this huge new cost, which isn’t being funded at all by the federal government.

It couldn’t come at a worse time, as state and local governments all over the country are still reeling from the recession—slashing programs and laying off employees. Local communities will need to be more resourceful than ever if they want their school meal programs to succeed. So it’s not just about vigilance over food quality, but actually being creative, marshaling local resources in new and innovative ways. We can’t just sit back and wait for Uncle Sam to pour money on the problem. If you are following the news in Washington at all, you know the federal government is broke as well.

The task before us is nothing short of changing the way we and our children eat. That’s going to take everybody working together and pulling in the same direction.

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One Response to Meeting Ed Bruske in DC (part two)

  1. Maggie May 5, 2011 at 7:39 pm #

    Sounds like very realistic info about the challenges of a school garden.

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