Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Eating with Class

Published simultaneously at It Takes A Kitchen and Let's Improve Schools Now

I spend most of my time here discussing the intersection of food and family.  But it is my career that has kept me from writing much over this past year and now brings me back.  In fact, I am coming back to write in both blogs, one single entry that bridges each topic – food and education.  Over the last four years I have had the immense pleasure of working with a group of nine high school students as they navigated high school – beginning to end, through AP classes, college apps, prom, spirit contests, assemblies, team building activities, anti-drug lectures, and even learning how to breath to relieve stress.  I firmly believe that a formal education is fundamentally a human endeavor based upon relationships and communication between people.  A deep, meaningful education cannot be replicated online or standardized.  Working with nine teens over four years’ time validates this belief. 

Furthermore, I firmly believe that relationships of all kinds are best formed over food.  Stop and think about it… Have you ever lead a group of community volunteers?  Offer food at meetings and people might show up.  Watch the conversation after church over a donut.  Think about your romantic relationships – I will bet they all included quite a bit of time over meals.  Want to get strangers talking?  Feed them something delicious.  Food brings people together and uncovers layers to relationships that will go unnoticed until sharing food. 

Over the last four years my group of students, my advisory (they call themselves Janda’s Pandas) have met weekly and food was key.  Truth be told, it was almost always junk food, but food nonetheless.  Without food, they were lethargic and bored.  Throw a gummy bear at ‘em, and it was like throwing a match into a box of dynamite.   However, in their junior and senior years we started making waffles in class.  The smell filled the building attracting the appetites of kids from other advisories.  Chocolate chips, whipped cream, and fruit all made great toppings and the leftover chips became quick snacks for them as they wandered by throughout the week.  Eating these waffles almost did as much for team building as the ropes course their sophomore year or the ocean kayaking their junior year. 

However, the culinary coup de grace for this group did not come until the end.  During their senior class trip to Laguna Beach last week we all ate at Mozambique.  Not knowing much about East African cuisine I cannot say much for the authenticity of the experience (they had pasta dishes and burgers?) but the authenticity of the meal was not at all the point.  The point was camaraderie, family.  We laughed about memories, we dreamt about college and we shared our food.  A couple kids shared a gigantic plate of seafood, working up a sweat to finish it all while the rest of us marveled.  They all left in a flash while I collected their desserts only to deliver them at the start of their class kumbaya moment.  Just a couple nights later, back home in San Jose, they all wanted to do it again after their Baccalaureate ceremony so we grabbed dinner in Santana Row.  I am left wondering if they would have liked to go out to eat every week. 
We already know that food quality is a major selling point for colleges today.  Some schools are approaching food differently (The Edible Schoolyard and Appleton, Wisconsin’s Central Alternative Charter High School are great examples) and seeing real behavioral and cognitive results.  But our efforts do not have to be so vast.  Simply sharing a meal with our students can make a difference in their level of commitment and joy in the process. 

“My kids” are now off to college – from coast to coast and from north to south – they are off to discover independence, test boundaries, live dreams, and seek wild success.  They will do phenomenal things, each in their own way.  But none of them will do it alone.  They will be supported by friends, professors, mentors and new advisors.  Bonds with these new people will be formed, often over food.  I hope they will tell me about it.  I hope when they return we will eat together again.  I miss them already.

Next year I start another four years with a new crop of freshmen.  We will eat together sooner.  We will build our bonds earlier…with waffle batter.