The future of food

by Ari LeVaux

Liam Levin was 13 years old when he wandered into a theater and saw “An Inconvenient Truth,” a movie he’d never heard of.

“My whole life I’ve loved the natural world, spending my free time in the woods and swamps. Then, there was Al Gore telling me that the thing I cared about more than anything else was quickly disappearing, and something had to be done about it.

“After that I was thinking about it all the time, thinking about what I could do. I read The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan. And then I read The Edible Schoolyard by Alice Waters, which was the most amazing book I’d ever read. I realized it had to be done in my school and every other school in the world.”

In October 2007, Sam, then a 14-year-old freshman at Monument High School in Great Barrington, Mass., and classmates Sarah Steadman and Natalie Akers, lobbied their principal, and then the school board, for a school garden. At each step they met initial but ultimately futile resistance. The team gathered supporters and advisers, spread the word, raised money, and by spring 2008 they planted a 3,500-square-foot trial garden next to their school. Next year’s garden will be triple that size, and the “master plan” calls for a 27,000-square-foot garden that will provide food for all three schools in the district.

Last week in Turin, Italy, Sam described Project Sprout – the organization they created to support the school’s garden – to thousands of Slow Foodies at the opening ceremony of Terra Madre, a four-day event in which 8,000 farmers, businesspeople, educators, students, and activists from 150 nations gathered for discussions and workshops on responsible, sustainable, and fair food-production practices.

“The plan was simple,” Sam told the crowd at Turin’s Olympic stadium: “Create a student-run organic vegetable garden on school grounds that would be used as an educational tool for students ages 3 through 18; provide delicious vegetables for school lunches; and ultimately build connections with nature for the children of our district.

“We will be the generation that will reconcile people and the land,” Sam said, appealing to an unprecedented youth turnout at this gathering of Slow Food tribes.

Sam’s speech was the talk of the conference, earning him instant no-last-name-necessary status in the many speeches and conversations that followed, and a hero’s welcome wherever he went. He’s a poster boy, to be sure, for the next generation of food activists, but Sam is hardly alone.

Like Monument High School’s garden, a new group called Youth Food is also about a year old. A Slow Food spinoff, Youth Food is a network of young farmers, cooks, artisans, activists, and students working to increase the availability of food that’s “good, clean, and fair” – the three pillars of the Slow Food movement – in their communities.

Youth Foodies, many of whom were born in the 1990s, are starting farms, organizing potluck “Eat–Ins” in public spaces, demanding changes in agribusiness

production methods and workplace standards, starting farmers’ markets and campus gardens, and lobbying to steer school cafeteria food sourcing toward sustainable local products. At Terra Madre this year, over 500 Youth Foodies held a meeting to discuss the future of their new organization. The mood was noticeably amped. They know they’re a big part of the future of sustainable food, and they’re ready to step up to the plate.

Toward the end of the Slow Food weekend I spoke with Alice Waters, author of The Edible Schoolyard – the book that so deeply inspired Sam. I asked her for a personal highlight from the event.

“Certainly it was hearing Sam speak with such conviction at such a young age,” she said. “So eloquent, so concerned, and positive.”

Waters says that creating more edible schoolyards has become her main focus, the most important thing she can see herself doing.

Her first edible schoolyard, at Martin Luther King, Jr. middle school in Berkeley, Calif. (whose garden is the subject of her book), Waters was amazed to discover that many students had no experience with meal-time conversations. “They don’t eat together as families at home,” she said. “We need to teach these kids how to have a conversation at the table.”

Waters, the founding chef of Berkeley’s Chez Panisse, wants the kids to be cooks as much as gardeners. “The first thing we did (at MLK middle school) was build an outdoor oven,” she said. “We made pizza, grilled peas in their pods, grilled corn.”

When I asked her about the many northern parts of the country, where the all-too-short growing season overlaps all too perfectly with summer vacation and deprives the garden of student workers and eaters just when it could really use them, Alice was undaunted.

“We need to change the school calendar,” she said.

Meanwhile, working within the existing calendar, Sam and his partners hosted more that 250 visitor/volunteers at the garden last summer, including a kindergarten class that visited every week.

Sam had to leave Turin on Sunday, missing the final day of the conference. I assumed he had to get back home so he wouldn’t miss any school. I was half-right.

“I have to get back to the garden,” he said. “We’re putting in a fruit orchard.” •



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