Activist Chefs and the Food Movement

David Beriss
University of New Orleans

A few weeks ago, Greg de St. Maurice wrote an intriguing piece on this blog about chef activism. He drew on the case of Chef Daniel Giusti, chef de cuisine at Noma, in Copenhagen, who is starting a company that will try to improve food in American schools. Greg raises questions about the ways in which we should evaluate chef activism, as well as about how that activism relates to other social movements. Reading both Greg’s piece and some of the links he provided, I was struck by two things, one related to the idea of a food movement, the other about Giusti’s specific approach.

The idea of a food movement has been discussed a lot in recent years. There has been significant scholarship on activism around food, including a very useful book edited by Carole Counihan and Valeria Siniscalchi, “Food Activism: Agency, Democracy and Economy” (Bloomsbury, 2014). There are a lot of other publications, too many to cite here, focusing on different ways in which all kinds of people are trying to change food systems, ranging from broad questions of science and sustainability, to workplace issues on farms, in processing plants, grocery stores, and restaurants. There are also many efforts to address the ways in which food is processed, distributed, and consumed. It is incredibly hard to summarize all the different kinds of food activism that exist, because there is so much of it (here are three sites that can give you a sense of how much activism is out there: Civil Eats, Food Tank, and Slow Food USA; add more in the comments section below if you want).

Because of this, many people were surprised when a Washington Post writer recently asserted that there really isn’t a food movement. The writer, Tamar Haspel, drew on some studies of consumption as well as surveys about attitudes toward food in order to argue that people’s behavior has not changed significantly enough for her to be able to perceive a food movement. This is an odd way to measure whether or not a movement exists. If Haspel is measuring anything, it is the effectiveness of the food movement, not its existence. In fact, some food activists responded to Haspel’s article with different ways of measuring the success of the food movement. They demonstrate some notable successes.

Yet I wonder if that is the best way to measure the existence of a food movement. Since the 1930s, I am pretty sure that unions never enrolled more than 30% of all American workers. Should we conclude that there has never been a labor movement in the United States? Of course, the labor movement has been very effective at changing the American workplace and in introducing many ideas that we now take for granted, as well as setting the framework for debates about work even today, when few Americans are union members. Along with some very real successes in changing how food is produced, distributed, and consumed, the food movement’s existence can be measured by the ways in which its ideas have come to permeate our public discourse. It is easy to find areas of life where public debates have been influenced by the food movement. Whether we are discussing questions of equal access to healthy food, living wages for food workers, or the availability of organic or local produce at stores and farmers markets, the existence of a food movement—or many food movements—is demonstrated by the ways in which its terms and concepts have become part of how we think and talk.

Which brings me back to Chef Giusti. As he readily acknowledges, the groundwork for reforming school lunches has been laid already by a lot of other activists, including a number of professional chefs (Alice Waters and Jamie Oliver come to mind, of course, but there are many others). Some of the efforts to reform school lunch have focused on trying to get kids to eat healthier foods, while others have tried to get schools and governments to support the schools more, so they can produce better quality food. Giusti is bringing something of a distinct model to this effort. He is creating a for-profit company, Brigaid, that will bring professional chefs and kitchens to schools. Giusti is trying to make working in school cafeterias an attractive career choice for professional chefs. As he comments in his Lucky Peach interview, “The whole point of this is to make it a more attractive space for people who are passionate about food to join in.”

No doubt some people will see this as an effort to bring a kind of privatized for-profit ideology (aka, “neo-liberal” ideology) into the public sphere. I do not think it is necessarily helpful to frame it that way. On one hand, Giusti is trying to make a profit. Yet school cafeterias are already run by big corporations, with a focus on maximizing profits instead of on making an attractive workplace and producing quality food. Giusti wants his approach to be focused on making people—the cooks, the kids—happy first and on making profits second. Maybe we no longer have to choose between doing good and doing well. In a world that sets its priorities differently—do good for people, then make profits—you should be able to do both.

Can that sort of model be sustained? It appears to be the principle behind a lot of people in the food movement. It certainly seems to be at work in farmers markets, which are often a combination of nonprofit organizers and for profit farmers, bringing improved food that makes people happy. I think there are a lot of small food producers that are also engaged in similar activities, especially among those who promote local foods. It seems to be at work in restaurants that try to pay their workers a living wage. If this is the food movement, then the kinds of metrics invoked by Tamar Haspel will not be very effective in measuring its success or, frankly, its very existence. Understanding what food activists—including activist chefs—are doing, may require rethinking what an activist actually is, as well as paying attention to what they say and what they actually do. This may just be a different sort of movement.

Rethinking School Lunch

USA School Lunch: Applesauce, chocolate milk, hash browns, and chicken nuggets, from http://interestingemailforwards.blogspot.com/2009/05/school-lunch-from-around-world.html

It has been many years since I last confronted a school lunch. While I can recall some spectacular lunchroom antics from my school years, I do not remember the food with any pleasure at all. Not the greasy pizza. Not the canned peaches served, mysteriously, with revolting cottage cheese. Not the jello. Well, maybe the jello, but more as a projectile than as food.

I have no idea where the food came from. I don’t know if it was cooked locally or distributed by a central kitchen. To be honest, I was not really paying that much attention at the time. There were more important things to consider. See my point about jello above. In any case, nobody seemed to care. Students were meant to eat and move on. We did.

Food activists have been trying hard recently to make people more aware of what kids eat in their school lunches.  Alice Waters, of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, for example, started a campaign in California to get kids involved in producing their own food. Beginning over a decade ago with an “edible schoolyard” in Berkeley, Waters created a foundation (the Chez Panisse Foundation) that focused on improving school lunch by making it a real part of the curriculum.  Another famous chef, Jamie Oliver, launched a campaign to improve “school dinners” in the United Kingdom and has had some notable success as well as some colorful resistance. He also turned his campaign into a kind of reality TV show and brought it to the U.S., much to the consternation of the folks who make school lunches in Los Angeles.  There have been many more local efforts to improve school food around the country, too many to note here, and quite a lot of blog traffic on the subject, including this site devoted to school lunches around the world. There has been some notable recent research in this area as well. Janet Poppendieck’s recent book, Free for All: Fixing School Food in America (2010, University of California Press), provides very useful insights into the history of and debate around school lunches in the U.S. Wendy Leynse has studied and written about the place of school lunch in France, where it seems to hold a more important place in school curricula. The Food Museum Online has a very comprehensive exhibit devoted to school lunch reform that is very much worth exploring.

One of the more striking recent developments in this movement, however, has been an effort to turn kids into school lunch activists. Here in New Orleans, a group called the Rethinkers have, since 2006, involved actual kids in efforts to rethink (whence the name) public education. One of their central issues has been school lunch.  In 2008, the Rethinkers put together a list of 12 recommendations for the local public schools and managed to get the superintendent to agree to most of them.  They have worked quite effectively to keep their recommendations in the public eye, creating recipes with chefs to suggest for the schools, meeting with Aramark (one of the enormous corporations that holds local school lunch preparation contracts) to persuade them to use local produce and issuing reports evaluating the food served at schools around town. Their most recent report provides a detailed evaluation of the food at several local schools, along with policy recommendations, critiques of where lunch food comes from and very good analyses of why food and the dining experience in schools should be improved. The entire excellent report is available on line.

It is interesting to see what the Rethinkers think is important.  Here is a summary of their 12 recommendations for schools:

  1. Use real utensils (no more sporks).
  2. Buy fresh, tasty food that is minimally processed.
  3. Use ingredients that have been sourced within 200 miles of New Orleans.
  4. Put more New Orleans and Louisiana dishes on the menu.
  5. Provide better vegetarian alternatives.
  6. Stop using Styrofoam.
  7. Develop school gardens and grow some food for the school.
  8. Compost leftovers.
  9. Design school cafeterias to be welcoming places where you might like to eat.
  10. Provide sinks where kids can wash their hands.
  11. Provide enough time for kids to enjoy their food and the company of their friends.
  12. No silent lunches. Food and dining should not be used to punish students.

The key thing to note here is that this is clearly about a great deal more than what students will get to eat. It is about where their food comes from, how it is prepared and disposed of, the dining context and the educational experience itself. It is about getting students, teachers, administrators and parents to be more self-conscious about food. In New Orleans, a city that is very self-conscious about food in general, this movement is helping remind people that kids do not have to leave behind their own culture at the school doors.  And by getting hundreds of kids involved in evaluating school lunches and rethinking what and how they eat, the Rethinkers are already succeeding in putting food on the curriculum.

One last thing worth noting: the never-ending debates about the crisis in public education in the United States usually focuses on issues like standardized test scores and what many people see as the “fundamentals” of education, like reading and math. Food is about as fundamental as it gets. The Rethinkers are calling attention to this.

Posted by David Beriss