By Beyond Green Sustainable Food Partners president and founder Greg Christian
Are kids feeding broccoli to the dog under the table when their mom looks away, is the busy executive eating your apple walking between meetings, or is a group of friends sharing grilled pineapple on a stick at the local fair? Can they taste the land from which it grew? Does the corn get stuck in their teeth? Or does the watermelon drip the length of their arm?
My third grade nephew, Oliver, gets in the car after school last week. When asked questions about the status of his hunger he explains that he was given cantaloupe slices at school. My hopeful excitement of the school serving fresh produce came to a halt as he went on to say, “It was the worst piece of cantaloupe I’ve had in my life.”
Upon inquiry as to what could possibly constitute the worst cantaloupe ever, I discovered that the fruit was unripe and without flavor. Oliver grows a garden with his family and knows how delicious a ripe cantaloupe tastes. Knowing this, he won’t give up on cantaloupe, but most kids after such an experience decide they don’t like cantaloupe and may never eat it again.
As at Oliver’s school, many institutional food service employees preparing and serving meals for millions of people in schools, hospitals, prisons, grocery stores, and corporate dining are not trained to work in kitchens.
I recently spoke with a district manager presiding over eleven states for a major food service company who hasn’t hired a cook in twenty years on the job. This sentiment is echoed by the owner of a food service company in New York that says, “I never hired a cook and don’t need to. They just need to know how to open boxes.”
With cafeterias across the country heating and serving meals from packages, boxes, and cans, the fruits and vegetables become tolerable at best, and often inedible with nearly half ending up uneaten in the garbage.
I work with a school cafeteria employing four full-time and three-part time staff that prepares 800 meals daily. None of the food service employees received culinary training or had experience working in a kitchen prior to securing jobs in the cafeteria.
The work history of a typical food service staff follows a path that looks like this: van driver, janitor, pot washer, salad prep, and then baker. Without culinary skills training, schools serve processed meals and students report that “the food is junk” and they “don’t like most of the meals, but it’s all that there is”.
Schools that want to provide healthy, scratch cooked food don’t have the skills in the kitchen to cook from raw ingredients. It requires education and experience to make baked ziti with homemade pasta sauce, chop the multiple vegetables for ratatouille, hand cut pineapple, create a salad bar with scratch made dressing and a dozen toppings, and bake garlic bread from yeast and flour for hundreds of children and have it all ready by the 11:00 a.m. lunch bell.
But what if everyone in the food system from seed to plate held themselves accountable for the world eating healthy, delicious meals? Imagine what our communities and businesses would look like if the farmers, distributors, processors, brokers, and seed companies worked with the food preparers to serve ripe fruit and draw flavor from vegetables, serving delicious meals every time.
Would the kids be more excited to eat pumpkin soup as the cook tells the story of how the pumpkin grew on the vine that she learned from the farmer, or would the processor be more engaged at work knowing their green beans were served in the most popular dish of the school year?
Would the cooks be proud of their work by serving tasty food that more people want to eat with administrators happy that profits are rising? Would the seed scientists see how a more diverse food system benefits the land?
As we begin to see beyond “our part” from the beginning to the end, imagine the food system working for everyone and everything.