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Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Good Food Schools

Have you ever heard-tell of the citizenship schools of the 50s and 60s?  (Click here for a mini-history from the perspective of the Highlander Folks School in eastern Tennessee.)

On the surface level, the citizenship schools were simply a place where black folks taught other black folks how to read and write, the point being to pass the literacy exams and register to vote.  But since the focus was voter registration, there was an emphasis on empowerment, on learning how to be good citizens, and, more immediately, on how to participate in the civil rights movement.  The schools also functioned as hubs of community, economic, and political activity.  Folks didn't learn how to read Pooh Bear, they began reading by learning the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights.  Once they'd learned to read about their rights, they began raising questions like, "Why don't we enjoy these rights?"  And from there, "Once we register to vote, what and who are we going to vote for?  And how are we going to work towards securing our rights?"

Anyway, as you may have noticed, the citizenship schools had a double, or dual purpose: they imparted a practical skill (learning to read and write) and they organized and empowered the community to make a difference.  The brilliance of the schools was that folks turned out because they wanted to learn a skill that would prove useful in their lives. Folks wanted to learn to read the letters from their children and the fine print on contracts; they wanted to write Christmas cards and business invoices.  They also wanted the racial scene to change.  The citizenship schools provided a way to "get involved" that was also personally edifying, thus satisfying both needs. 

And it was a simple model: get students in the same room with a teacher and start with the interests of the students: What do you want to learn to read?  What do you want to learn to write?  From there, after ten weeks or so, students could (and did) become teachers.  The idea self-perpetuated across the south.  Although no one knows the exact count, it's estimated that citizenship schools enabled more that 100,000 people to register to vote.

The point in sharing this with you is that I feel we're in need of "new fangled" citizenship schools focused on food.  Maybe we'll call them the "Good Food Schools."*  Maybe they'll look like a educational community garden whereat folks can tend a plot all their own and and also participate in, say, monthly garden workshops.  Perhaps in early spring there will be a class taught on garden bed preparation followed by one on seed starting and transplanting.  Maybe as the spring progresses, there will be a workshop on mulching, another on pest and weed management, and another on composting.  On towards summer, perhaps someone else that is good with pots and pans can teach classes on cooking with garden fresh produce.  And, just maybe, once we're all sitting down together eating the food that we grew and prepared, having learned a practical skill, we'll get talking about the current industrial food system: about the Farm Bill; mono-cropping; chemical residues on produce; CAFOs; the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, top soil loss, food deserts; GMOs; and about about local, sustainable alternatives: about community gardens; community food security; CSAs; farmers markets; urban agriculture; vermicomposting; and our grandmother's recipes.  Maybe we'll ask questions like "Why is corn syrup subsidized? Why is the rate of childhood obesity so high, and what's that got to do with corn subsides?" And: "Why is it (often) illegal to sell yard-eggs and raw milk from grass-fed cows?"  Then, before we drown in the the pleasant euphoria of good food and healthy conversation, we'll make plans and find teachers so we can learn to raise chickens, goats, and turkeys; harvest our own honey; and make our own cheese.

And just maybe, if we keep it simple enough, garden novices will become garden instructors, microwavers will become cooking instructors, kids will become community garden catalysts, and participants will start their own Good Food Schools down the road, across town, and on the far side of the world.

My question for you is: What happens when a dream is shared?  And: where do we go from here?


*Props go to Will Allen for coining the phrase "Good Food Revolution."

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