For almost a month now, I have been watching an interesting discussion unfold about school food safety occur on the ComFood Listserv, a discussion place for people interested in issues dealing with community, food and agriculture. And today, I feel I have to finally weigh into the conversation. The public procurement of local food has recently made its way through a variety of unique institutions. Hospitals, prisons, schools, and universities are now purchasing and using the food. They are supporting local farmers, reducing their food miles, and providing themselves with one more environmentally friendly marketing initiative. However, the recent conversation that began within this online community is slightly different. The topic is school gardens, where the act of growth and cultivation takes place on school grounds and often involves the participation of the students. Many have sprouted up across the country, including the Great Lakes area. In fact, there is a grant specifically for school gardens to be produced in Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin.
Recently, one member of the Listserv asked for help from the online community after their friend had tried to begin a school vegetable garden, but was told that it was a safety concern. And with this, the conversation and controversy of growing food on school grounds, was sparked.
As I watched people respond to the posting online about school gardens and food safety, more and more people weighed in, arguing both for and against these institutions. Some said that they had tried and had met similar opposition. One post said schools would be should be worried if someone were to come along and sprayed pesticides on the food while no one was watching. Although some seemed ridiculous, while reading these concerns, part of me vaguely understood while school officials would be concerned about what could be grown with little grubby hands instead of sterilized machinery and what doesn’t arrive shrink-wrapped.
However, I cant’ help but ask how the traditional practice of growing food in the dirt and cultivating it with human hands, is any less safe than something like neon colored, processed cheese food that doesn’t need refrigeration (used often in school lunches). Perhaps it is just the fact that school gardens are actually on the grounds of the school and therefore have a lot of opportunities to come in contact with “un-sterile” sources. Food for schools has long been arriving in all too neatly packed cardboard boxes, unloaded out of a semi. Nothing new here, and I won’t be the one more person to use the term “mystery meat” when referring to school lunches and food safety. The topic has already been well versed. However, can we really pass up the opportunity to teach students to grow food while also providing fresh fruits and vegetables in cafeterias?
I suppose for me there is just something incredibly romantic about children learning how to grow their own food, while also providing an abundance of nutritious food. But perhaps I am just too idealistic for an age of neon cheese and mystery meat.