This month in Rockaway Waterfront Alliance’s (RWA) Living Classroom program, we are exploring the world of food. The younger students are learning the basics of food­ — where it comes from, how it is grown and what its life is like as a plant before we cook it. The older students are learning about the different ways food is grown. We have introduced the different industries that inform these practices and how each industry affects our environment, health and economy. We are also learning about how these systems have manipulated the way in which we govern, having major impacts on human rights, civil rights and social injustice.

The eighth graders at Kappa VI in Far Rockaway are curious about how we have arrived at this current state of national food arrest. They have been reading Michael Pollan’s book, Omnivore’s Dilemma, which covers the timeline of modern food production. Pollan brings to light the carefully constructed web that encompasses how and why we produce food in the way that we do. Our students are learning to understand the differences and relationships between biology, ecology, farming, industrial farming, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), organic  farming and industrial organic farming. The common lack of knowledge surrounding these topics is one of the main reasons we have fallen into these ways. We are also discussing how the government crafts policies that ignore science, hurt our environment and poison our bodies.

Cooking is an important skill for all ages. We see cooking as an entry point into learning about the complex issues that revolve around food. For our cooking lessons we emphasize use of local and non­industrial organic ingredients. We work with local farms including Sang Lee Farm, Edgemere Farm and Urban Agro Farm. Our youth interns in the Environmentor program are also growing greens using a hydroponic system that we use for our cooking lessons. Of course, we still end up having to source some of our ingredients from the local supermarkets, so we also discuss how to shop smart and healthy when your choices are limited. Hint: stick to the outside edges of the store, all the processed foods are in the middle.

We like to follow Michael Pollan’s food rules, and have added one of our own as well: ­Eat only foods that eventually rot. Nothing with preservatives. However, using fermentation processes to preserve food is encouraged.

Eat only foods that have been cooked by humans. Processed and most frozen (unless you know who cooked and froze it) foods are made by a machine.

Avoid foods you see advertised. Most of our food production is run by big corporations, who are the ones that are allowing chemicals into our food and stifling small farms. 

Monsanto is a company that provides our chemical fertilizers, and GMOs. Most food you see is made from their crops or grown using one of the many chemicals they have patented.

Eat mostly plants. Meat, cheese, butter, bread when done right­ are all things that we can and should eat. Animal fats and whole grains are necessary in order to absorb nutrients. However, we live in a culture that encourages us to eat too much of the wrong kind of meats and grains and more of it than fruits and vegetables. Simply put­ you need to eat mostly plants, but please still eat some meat and grains, and make sure it is the whole kind, not processed. 

Try everything and learn how to cook. This is one of our own rules. Today in America, we have arrived at a national food arrest. Most of our food production is run by only a handful of corporations, who put profit over the health of their employees and customers. Most of us do not realize how companies decide what we do and do not like to eat. In fact, over decades, fast-food restaurants and food deserts have been strategically placed in low-income neighborhoods, disproportionately affecting minority communities.

Every community deserves access to affordable healthful food. When a community knows the food industry, understands how plants grow and learns how to cook,­ it gives power and agency to those that would normally be marginalized, directly connecting people to their own health and well­being.

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