If you were shocked to read in the Bangor Daily News last month that food was being returned to a food pantry in Eastport because clients did not know how to cook it, take heart.
At least a few young people in Aroostook County will not give you a “blank stare” if you hand them raw vegetables to convert into a meal. Thanks to Slow Food Aroostook, students from Bridgewater and Monticello have grown school gardens, adding fresh salads to their lunches and producing squash, beets and other vegetables for a special harvest dinner.
In case you missed Sharon Kiley Mack’s article on Eastport’s teaching kitchen, Brenda Barker, manager of the Labor of Love Nutrition Center and Food Pantry, told Mack that so many people lack experience with unprepared food, the center has created a kitchen to teach clients how to cook food that does not come frozen or in a box.
“We are three generations out from those who knew how to cook real food,” Barker said, noting that home economics programs were cut from high schools decades ago. “So many people don’t know how to take a few basic ingredients and combine them into a healthy, delicious meal.”
Enter Slow Food, with chapters in Portland, Penobscot Valley and midcoast Maine as well as Aroostook County. With 100,000 members in 153 countries, Slow Food was founded in northern Italy in 1989 to counter the rise of fast food and the disappearance of local food traditions. Founder Carlo Petrini says the global grass-roots organization “unites the pleasure of food with responsibility, sustainability and harmony with nature.”
School gardens were among the first activities of Slow Food Aroostook, formed in 2004 by Angela Wotton of Hammond and Jim and Megan Gerritsen of Bridgewater. Children at Bridgewater Elementary School and Wellington Elementary School in Monticello planted fruit trees as well as vegetables and flowers in their schoolyards. Now in junior high school, those students know the connection between a garden and the dinner table.
“Aroostook County has a strong agricultural tradition and our [chapter’s] mission is to work to promote those traditions,” Wotton said. “We want to educate and celebrate our region’s cultural heritage. Food connects not only people to people but also people to the land and their communities.”
One model for Aroostook’s school gardens was the Edible Schoolyard established by Alice Waters in Berkeley, Calif., where food-related activities were woven into the entire curriculum. Waters’ program began with a kitchen classroom and a garden of fruits, vegetables and herbs. It inspired a cafeteria where students, faculty and staff members ate together every day.
“The trouble is that the shared family meal is now a rare experience for most youngsters,” Waters wrote in The New York Times on Feb. 24, 2006, noting that only a third of married couples with children ate dinner as a family regularly. “Not only are our children eating unhealthy food, they’re digesting the values that go with it: the idea that food has to be fast, cheap and easy; that abundance is permanent and effortless; that it doesn’t matter where food comes from.
“These values are changing. As a nation we need to take back responsibility for the health of not just our children, but also our culture.”
Waters’ words echo the philosophy of the Slow Food movement. Local Slow Food groups, originally called convivia, organize events, projects and gatherings that promote cultural and social values of food as well as its quality. Aroostook County members also gather periodically to enjoy the pleasures of the table at potluck suppers featuring the products of their own farms and kitchens.
“We’re keeping alive the tradition of food production,” said Jim Gerritsen, who operates Wood Prairie Farm in Bridgewater with his wife, Megan, and their children. “More and more, people want to know where their food comes from. You never know more than when you grow it in your backyard.”
Gerritsen cited research indicating that increased gardening spurred by tough economic conditions may continue into the future as people realize gardens not only save money on grocery bills but also bring together family members.
“Economic times cause people to think anew,” he said. “People are making choices they feel good about. Food is part of that.”
Kathryn Olmstead is a former University of Maine associate dean and associate professor of journalism living in Aroostook County, where she publishes the quarterly magazine Echoes. Her column appears in this space every other Friday. She may be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.