I'm old enough to have grown up in Southern California before orange groves were replaced by Disneyland, when walnut orchards reached almost to the shores of the Pacific, and when truck farms and orchards blanketed my childhood habitat of Orange, Los Angeles and San Diego counties.
My father showed me how to squeeze oranges into juice, to catch fish and clean them, and to pry abalones off the rocks and make chowder with them. I learned from my mother how to bake cakes and make meatloaf, to grow vegetables from seeds and flowers from cuttings. My grandmother and I made apricot jam and pomegranate jelly from our backyard trees. It was a time when the agricultural landscape fused with the food we ate, and where the only kind of cooking we did was from scratch. We didn't know any other way.
When I went off to elementary school, every morning we had a snack with milk and graham crackers. I looked forward to the snack, because by 10 a.m. I was hungry. My breakfast of cream of wheat had been consumed by recess and a morning of hard schoolwork. By lunch, I was hungry again, and happy to slide my tray along the lunch line where, depending upon the day, women whose children I knew had cooked spaghetti, enchiladas, Salisbury steak or chili and beans.
In the intervening years, I learned much more about food, mostly because I love to eat. In France I raised pigs and made goats' milk cheese, gathered wild mushrooms and asparagus with my neighbors, learned the subtleties of cooking with fresh herbs, and most importantly for me, experienced the daily rhythm of cooking from a year-round garden, the French potager. It was revelatory to me the simplicity of gathering every morning from the garden what I would cook that day. Juicy tomatoes, of course, in summer, fat cabbages in winter, eggplants and peppers in fall, and armloads of young tender carrots, fava beans and artichokes in spring. Everything I cooked was fresh and full of flavor.
Why then, when I later lived in El Centro, the heart of the winter California produce industry, could I not buy a head of lettuce that had just come out of the field? Instead, it was packed and cooled in El Centro, then shipped to a Los Angeles distribution center, then back to El Centro where I could buy it in the supermarket. Why, in the heat of July, do supermarkets in Vacaville sell heaps of green ripe tomatoes, coming from the San Joaquin Valley instead of the vine-ripe tomatoes grown in Dixon or Winters, only a few miles away? Why are schoolchildren in Oakland being served egg rolls made in Texas? Why, in January, in Riverside, renowned for its diversified citrus industry, are school children being served grapes from Chile instead of ripe local oranges?
Somehow, in some way, we have lost the cultural connection to our state's abundant food. Agriculture is one of the engines that drive California's economy, producing diverse foods for the state, the nation and the world, yet why isn't more California food on California's school lunch plates? Why aren't we teaching our children about taste, about the food that is grown around them, connecting those dots? Why aren't we developing the next generation of taste-literate consumers who will understand, enjoy and celebrate what California produces, and pass that on to the next generation?
Are we early boomers the last generation to know where food comes from? Are we the last to have lived in a time when food was seasonal, when we knew what fruit and nut trees looked like, and how a freshly picked vegetable or fruit tastes? I am afraid that might be the case. I talk to hundreds of people in the course of my cooking classes, book tours, lectures and my work with school lunches up and down the state, and I am constantly surprised by a lack of understanding of the seasons and of the origin of the food we eat. Surprisingly, this is true even among many food lovers and gourmet cooks.
Over the years, we consumers have come to expect any food we want to be available at every time of the year. We've lost the sense of what food comes into season when. If we look around us, here in the Sacramento Valley in spring, for example, and we see no fruit on the plum or peach trees, the fields just barely green with the fuzz of newly planted tomatoes, and grapevines just leafing out, can we not infer that plums, peaches, tomatoes and grapes are not in season?
Why does it matter that they are not in season? It matters because consuming locally grown fruits and vegetables means we are experiencing them at their peak of flavor, when they taste the very best and at their greatest abundance and least cost. Spring asparagus coming from the rich, peaty soils of the Sacramento Delta is sweet and tender and inexpensive, very different from that coming on a long truck ride from Mexico in December and January. It matters because as we know and understand our California-grown food and its seasons, we are re-establishing the lost link between our land and our food. Farmers markets in California and some of our restaurants are bringing a deeper understanding of provenance and seasonality to what we eat, and where is it more important to do this than in our homes and schools, educating our children and preserving the patrimony of our California agriculture?
Working as a consultant with my business partner, Ann Evans, and with the Berkeley-based Center for Ecoliteracy, I've had the opportunity to explore in depth the disconnect between California's agriculture and the food served to schoolchildren. I've eaten dozens of school lunches of every kind from corn dogs, packaged burritos, crispy drumsticks, chicken burgers, egg rolls, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, to chicken teriyaki rice bowls and tortilla soup. Most of the entree items are prepared, packaged, frozen, frequently hundreds, if not thousands of miles away, and then shipped to California schools to be reheated and finally served.
Fruits and vegetables are sequestered on the salad bar, if there is one. Sometimes packaged salads are offered, with lettuce, cherry tomato, carrot coin or broccoli florets, regardless of season. Fruit, if offered, is frequently Red Delicious apples from Washington state, and even oranges from Florida and Mexico may be offered. There are exceptions of course, and there are numerous school nutrition service directors in California who make an effort to have an abundant, seasonal salad bar, and to incorporate fresh, seasonal vegetables into made-from-scratch or freshly prepared entrees and soups. In Davis, for example, I've seen kiwis and blood oranges in winter, strawberries and sugar snap peas in spring, and butternut squash and heirloom tomatoes in fall, along with seasonal soups and organic rice bowls. It can be done.
In a recent school lunch research trip to France with Evans, where we ate multiple school lunches, peered into every walk-in cooler in every school we visited, quizzed school lunch chefs, government and regional officials and pedagogues, we made some discoveries. In France, the norm is regional, in-season food made from scratch or freshly prepared. We saw no prepackaged food at all, except slices of St. Andre or St. Nectaire cheeses. We ate apples from Normandy, parsnips and carrots from the Landes and fresh fish from the Atlantic. In France, school lunch is considered an educational opportunity to present students with a variety of tastes, textures and flavors. We saw 5-year-olds carrying their trays with a green salad, a dinner plate of lentils topped with sautéed pork and carrots, cheese and a Golden Delicious apple for dessert. At a junior high school, students were served an option of a fresh grapefruit half, a green salad or a carrot and cabbage slaw. For their main dish they had mashed parsnips and potatoes, along with a choice of baked chicken thighs or braised beef, cheese and kiwi or an apple. This isn't happening by chance.
France has national, regional and local mandates to maximize the purchase of local, in-season fruits and vegetables, to reduce the carbon footprint and to strive for 20 percent organic food in all schools by 2013.
Pedagogically, France has a curriculum especially for taste. In the biology curriculum there is a section on food and agriculture, focusing on what regions of the country are noted for what agricultural produce, such as walnuts, chickens, peaches and wheat.
All this is not to say that school lunch in France is perfect. It isn't. However, there is a belief and dedication on the part of the state, local and federal government that it is a value to provide all the children with the best, in-season, local food whenever possible, to educate them about their region and their nation's food and agriculture, and to educate them about taste, flavor and the pleasure of eating good food.
California, as the most productive and varied agricultural state in the nation, can do the same for its children, if there is a will. Our children do not need to be served reheated processed food manufactured in Kentucky or Missouri when they are surrounded by some of the most, if not the most, productive orchards, fields, farms, ranches and dairies in the world. Let's reconnect our children and ourselves to our rich agricultural landscape through creating a true California school lunch.