Food Fight

ScreenHunter_01 Feb. 15 09.38 As some of my previous blogs attest I have a big interest in food. This extends beyond the buying, cooking and eating of food to social and political issues concerning food. So it was with some interest that I noticed the latest Atlantic contained a piece by Caitlin Flanagan entitled “Cultivating Failure.”

The little headline above the article indicated that the title was a sly double entendre—`How school gardens are cheating our most vulnerable students.’

I dimly recalled that Flanagan had gained a certain amount of notoriety for being a harsh critic of the feminist movement and for having boasted that she had never changed a sheet or sewn on a button. It was not obvious why she should now be engaged in attacking school gardens; the only possible connection to feminism being that the movement promoting such gardens was if not founded, at least given a public face, by Alice Waters of Chez Panisse fame. All this by way of saying that I had no reason to pre-judge one way or the other the contents of the article.

It begins with a fictional anecdote. I quote in full because paraphrase would lose the full force of the rhetorical strategy. It is intended to establish the author as a friend of the oppressed and to set the stage (poison the well) for an attack on school gardens.

“Imagine that as a young and desperately poor Mexican man, you had made the dangerous and illegal journey to California to work in the fields with other migrants. There, you performed stoop labor, picking lettuce and bell peppers and table grapes; what made such an existence bearable was the dream of a better life. You met a woman and had a child with her, and because the child was born in the U.S., he was made a citizen of this great country. He will lead a life entirely different from yours; he will be educated. Now that child is about to begin middle school in the American city whose name is synonymous with higher learning, as it is the home of one of the greatest universities in the world: Berkeley. On the first day of sixth grade, the boy walks though the imposing double doors of his new school, stows his backpack, and then heads out to the field, where he stoops under a hot sun and begins to pick lettuce.”

Never mind that school gardens are AFTER school activities. Never mind that it is very unlikely that they would be chosen on the first day of school. Never mind the choice of Berkeley rather than Calistoga or San Diego as the chosen town. Never mind that the chances of a hot sun in Berkeley in September are pretty low. Never mind the change from “garden” to “field.” Never mind the suggestion that the student is going to spend some considerable part of his day in stoop labor.

Now comes the thesis . “It’s rare for an immigrant experience to go the whole 360 in a single generation…The cruel trick has been pulled on this benighted child by an agglomeration of foodies and educational reformers who are propelled by a vacuous if well-meaning ideology that is responsible for robbing an increasing number of American school children of hours that they might otherwise have spent reading important books or learning higher math (attaining the cultural achievements , in other words, that have lifted uncounted generations of human beings out of the desperate daily scrabble to wrest sustenance from dirt)”

Where to begin? Which benighted child—the one you made up to catch the readers attention? Which cruel trick—the one in which this fictional child spends “hours” in stoop labor rather than learning? What is the “increasing number of American school children”? Have they increased from four to five, from four hundred to a thousand, from 18, 176 to 25,678? Over what period? How many is an agglomeration? Can an ideology be both vacuous and well-meaning? Surely we will learn the answers to these—and many other questions—as the essay develops.

Flanagan now introduces the central character –the foodie and educational reformer behind this “robbery.” Meet Alice Waters—“dowager-queen of the grown-locally movement…founder of Chez Panisse…an eatery where the right on, “yes we can, ACORN-loving, public option-supporting man or woman of the people can tuck into a nice table d’hote menu of scallops, guinea hen , and tarte tatin for a modest 95 clams…oppressively sanctimonious and relentlessly conversation-busting service not included.” But wait there’s more. This is a woman who has a “weird, almost erotic power she wields over a certain kind of educated, professional-class, middle-aged woman (the same kind of woman who tends to light, midway through life’s journey, on school voluntarism as a locus of her fathomless energies).” Flanagan seems to have exhausted her supply of sympathy on the young and poor Mexican farm worker leaving only scorn and sarcasm for middle-aged women whose need to channel their fathomless energy is only assuaged by the almost (?) erotic power of Alice Waters.

OK, the rhetoric is over the top, the attitudes expressed are contemptuous and unfair. But there is that thesis–remember? Let us see what evidence is produced to support it.

What did Alice Waters propose? Flanagan quotes her as believing a garden would afford students “experience-based learning that illustrates the pleasure of meaningful work, personal responsibility, the need for nutritious, sustainably raised, and sensually stimulating food, and the important socializing effect of the ritual of the table.” PLEASE REMEMBER THESE WORDS. THEY WILL NEVER BE REFERENCED AGAIN. The aims of school gardens , their point and rationale , will be obscured and forgotten.

Only dimly does the evilness of gardens emerge in Flanngan’s prose. It turns out that what is so terrible about them is that they are being used by some schools as part of the curriculum. “In English classes students composed recipes, in math they measured the garden beds, and in history they ground corn as a way of studying pre-Columbian civilization.” Well that really sounds evil doesn’t it? Using the theme of food to learn to write clearly, measure better, and find a new way into history. Next thing you know the benighted child will be reading classic social science texts such as “Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History” by Sidney Mintz.

Perhaps the only legitimate point in the entire diatribe is the question of whether we have any evidence that the garden program produces results. Here is Flanagan’s framing of that issue.

“What evidence do we have that participation in one of these programs…improves a child’s chances of doing well on the state tests that will determine his or her future…and passing Algebra 1, which is becoming the make-or-break class for California high-school students?” Talk about bait and switch; this is more like shock and ignore. Remember what Alice Waters aims were? It turns out that we missed that the kids working in the garden have been given “the promise of a better chance of getting an education and a high-school diploma.” It seems that Waters’ “almost erotic powers” extend to high-school bureaucrats who overcome by the idea of “sensually stimulating food” have transformed her utterly reasonable objectives into promises of higher graduation rates.

Having not simply moved the goalposts but uprooted and exchanged them, and having found “ not a single study that suggests classroom gardens help students meet the state standards for English and Math” Flanagan’s snide metaphor strikes again. “I would say this to our state’s new child farm laborers . Huelga! Strike!” But wait, Flanagan has some real evidence to produce. Where have test scores been rising in Berkeley? Cal Prep, a charter school where 92 percent of the students are black and Latin and (here’s the killer logic) it’s gardenless! Well at least we have learned something important from this worthless article. That correlation does not equal causation. Oh no, that’s what she seems blissfully unaware of. That there may be other factors about Cal Prep that are causing the rise besides the absence of gardens, e.g. differences in the parents who choose a charter school rather than King Middle school? Nope. That anecdotes do not a social science make? Ah, but Flanagan is a journalist.

Here’s a tip for Flanagan—the lyrics from White Rabbit (suitably annotated).

When men on the chessboard (school bureaucrats)
Get up and tell you where to go (out to the field)
And you've just had some kind of mushroom (drugs on campus)
And your mind is moving low ( can’t solve those quadratic equations)
Go ask Alice
I think she'll know

And, of course, Alice does not know since she is only “an extremely talented cook with a highly political agenda.” And so should not be advising schools on their curriculum. Let me suggest to Ms. Flanagan that if this is the issue she is worried about she might be better advised to write a column criticizing the intense efforts of corporations to influence what our students learn. Remember when Proctor and Gamble sent a kit to teachers suggesting they learn about personal hygiene by way of Old Spice after-shave and Secret deodorant? Or when schools were offered free televisions in return for having students watch a current-events program stocked with commercials—the project known as Charter One. Or this.

“In March 1998 the student government of Greenbriar High School in Evans, Georgia sponsored Coke in Education Day to compete for a $500 prize offered by the Augusta-based Coca-Cola Bottling Co. and a $10,000 national Team Up With Coca- Cola award. Students and teachers created an entire curriculum revolving around Coke . A Coke marketing executive discussed his profession with economics students. Chemistry classes measured the sugar content of a can of Coke. Social studies teachers lectured on overseas Coke markets. The culmination of the day saw the entire student body, all clad in red and white Coke t-shirts, spelling out the word Coke for a school photo.”

This article is so ludicrous that the backlash generated by it may actually be helpful to those who favor school gardens. See // for a long and varied list or responses.

Why then spend time on an article that should never have gotten past the editors at Atlantic? Because this kind of writing is not simply illogical, unfair, full of contempt for people who by her own account are “well-meaning.” This kind of writing is evil. It is evil not because it attacks school gardens or Alice Waters. Both are legitimate subjects for critical evaluation. It is evil because it is destructive of reasoned discourse, because it exhibits contempt for those it opposes, because by ignoring the quite serious attempts by non-educators to corrupt the curriculum –not to mention the dreadful state of public funding in California today–it distracts attention from serious problems. It is a classic example of snark, which on one account is defined as “malice in speech.” It is an example of corruption of thought and as such must be opposed.