What is an activist?
I spent the past several days turning this question over in my mind after meeting hundreds of people at the Farm to Cafeteria conference in Portland. Today, I have a very different image of what an activist looks like than I did a week ago.
Admit it: you hear the word activist, and you picture a hippie on the fringe. Someone shrill, carrying signs, in your face, complaining. Someone unkempt, unreasonable, dissatisfied. Someone with a bone to pick or an ax to grind.
Here's a portrait of the people I met: middle school students from New Orleans who convinced their superintendent to change his foodservice contract so they could have fresh, locally grown produce at least twice a month. (They succeeded.) High school students from Vermont who worked to get root vegetable "seconds" from local farms onto the lunch menus at their schools. (They succeeded.) And a group of college and university students across the country who have formed a vast network to bring "real" food to their cafeterias. (They are currently succeeding, with much more work ahead of them.)
But I'm not done. I met farmers, young ones, who care passionately about producing food but can't supply the schools in their own communities due to arcane government regulations and bureaucratic hurdles. I met foodservice directors committed, emotionally and intellectually, to serving fresher fare but who literally do not have kitchens at their schools where they can wash, prep, and chop whole fruits and vegetables. I met parents, and teachers, hospital administrators and nursing home workers, vegans and omnivores, growers and eaters, men, women, and children. They came from Hawaii, Montana, New York City, small rural communities and large urban districts, and everywhere in between. And they are all working tirelessly to connect small farmers to the nation's children, all of whom eat a midday meal in school cafeterias five days a week.
I gathered so much information that it's nearly impossible to share it all with you in a single post, and I won't try to. (More links and concrete resources later in the week.)
But I will ask you this:
What, to you, is real food? Not healthy food, not nutritious food, because the conversation has moved past these terms, but real food? How inclusive is the definition? And what does it leave out? Try, if you can, to think past Michael Pollan's "food your grandparents ate" and probe a little deeper.
And one more question: if you could craft an ideal school lunch for children, that would both nourish and please them, what would be on the plate?