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What education can learn from the local foods movement

Posted Nov. 13, 2013, at 2:51 p.m.

I started eating local food in 1993. Working at an organic food hub in Freedom, Calif., earning minimum wage, I appreciated the free, bruised and damaged produce available to employees. Right away, I noticed the singular taste of apples from Sonoma County, garlic from Gilroy, and greens from down the road.

Over time, I also noticed I felt better, stronger, more alert. On the rare occasions I visited commercial grocery stores, I recoiled from the processed food on the shelves. It was almost like I had developed a heightened sensitivity to chemicals; I could feel them emanating from the cardboard boxes, tin cans and plastic containers lining the shelves.

Back then, most people thought I was strange for shunning grocery stores. When I returned to the East Coast, I was often hungry because my efforts to eat locally were stymied by availability and price. Here in Waldo County, we are blessed with an abundance of local food: seafood and meat, fruit and vegetables, Maine-made jams and grains, fresh breads, cheeses, ice cream and more. We know that this food is delicious and healthy. We know that a strong local food system creates economic and environmental resilience. We also know that industrial agriculture results in poor working conditions, unethical treatment of animals, the use of toxic chemicals and the erosion of soil health. We know that industrial agriculture poses risks to our health, our economy and our environment, so we know we are lucky to have alternatives.

Now, it is time to look for alternatives to industrial education.

Industrial education, like industrial agricultural, is a relatively modern institution. Both rose at the same time, and, in fact, statistical research demonstrates that schooling increased as commercial farms replaced family farms. The school year and the school day both got longer. Schools themselves grew and grew as larger, centralized schools and consolidated school districts replaced community schools.

Industrial education, like industrial agriculture, threatens our economic, personal, and environmental health. Like the mechanical tractors that run on fossil fuel and are funded by farm subsidiaries, standardized tests and common standards are supported by government partnerships with big business. As industrial farming depletes the soil of nutrients, industrial education strips our children of their imagination, for industrial education and farming both value short-term, narrow economic concerns over long-term health and growth.

For example, in K-12 education, the latest initiative to improve education is the Common Core State Standards. The content of the Common Core standards emphasizes consistency and a reductive understanding of literacy. In the language sections for fourth-grade standards, three genres of writing are specified: opinion pieces, informative/explanatory texts and narrative writing. Because the narrative writing may be real or invented, there is the chance that students in the fourth grade — who are typically 9 or 10 years old — may not engage in any creative or imaginative writing at all.

This happens in a context where funding for the arts and for extracurricular activities is decreasing and where spending on technology, often to support assessment, is rising. The Common Core standards, then, far from offering solutions, exacerbate the problem, making our schools more like the vast tracks of monocultural cornfields blanketing the Midwest, fields that produce corn syrup for the processed food industries. If we allow our schools to be dominated by the logic that created industrial agriculture, we risk processing our children like fast food.

As Maine faces important decisions about education, we should continue to look at the success of the local food movement for answers and alternatives to industrial education.

One response to industrial agriculture is a set of design principles called permaculture. Because permaculture aims to achieve ecological balance rather than short-term economic profit, permaculture works with the diverse materials, needs and resources of local ecosystems to create nourishing, mutually sustaining systems. It cultivates living environments that aim to benefit all. Practicing permaculture brings better material worlds into being and educates others about environmentally responsible alternatives to the rapidly decaying industrial model of life.

Using permaculture to improve our schools would mean meeting students where they are, honoring creativity and diversity, preserving community schools, and most importantly, understanding that education, like farming, defies abstract, quantitative evaluation.

It is not the numbers that matter. Farmers and teachers know that neither test scores nor crop yield tell the whole story. Successful farming and successful education both depend on cultivating relationships between people and places. Maine has been putting this into practice in the realm of agriculture for some time. Let’s ensure our educational policies and practices follow.

Stephanie Wade of Belfast is director of general education at Unity College and a member of the board of directors for Regional School Unit 20.

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