Power of Pesto

When I asked a 12th grade student at our first garden club meeting why she wanted to go to college, she looked up from weeding the radish bed and replied, “Because I don’t want to live on the street.”

Six miles down the road from the White House, 340 students are being taught that education is power. College is not just an attainable goal; it’s something that is expected of students at the nation’s first public boarding school.

With students in grades 6 through 12, the SEED School of Washington, D.C., has its hands full.  Hormones. Late night emergencies. And early morning scuffles.

From Sunday evening until Friday afternoon, students are away from home. The rules here are different from home: mandatory reading hours, no TV and resident advisors on every floor.

Students eat, sleep and breathe SEED for almost 80% of their week. Three meals per day ensure that the cafeteria is a chorus of organized chaos, one with a megaphone-toting principal as conductor. The incredible food service staff works nine to twelve hour shifts to cook scratch meals for students who will end up throwing away about 50% of their plate. While food service craves to educate more about waste and the likes, there is only so much they can accomplish.

FoodCorps was employed at SEED to bridge a divide. The unique nature of this school makes it a terrific place to employ real food education, connecting lessons inside the classroom and cafeteria to life outside of it. Real food education empowers students to think deeply about their relationship with food as well as the social, political and physical roles it plays in their community.

As far as structure, I mostly roll with the pace of the school—flying by the seat of my pants. I meet with teachers to discuss lessons that we deem interesting and appropriate. Want to do a project about pickling vegetables in an eighth grade science class? You got it. Food justice with sixth grade geography? Let’s do it.

Aftermath of taste testing pickled garden vegetables with 8th graders. Students learned about the differences in basic tastes and ranked how each pickle held up
Aftermath of taste testing pickled garden vegetables with 8th graders. Students learned about the differences in basic tastes and ranked how each pickle held up

Not every day is as glorious as watching students harvest their first carrot (an entirely romantic vision of FoodCorps service). Some days, however, like yesterday, this might be the case. And those carrot greens might very well end up as pesto for a side dish to be served at the tomorrow night’s dinner. (Perks of a boarding school with rock star food service staff and high school seniors needing a break from college applications.)

Corban, a senior, serves carrot green pesto pasta to classmates at Wednesday night's dinner.
Corban, a senior, serves carrot green pesto pasta to classmates at Wednesday night’s dinner.

To educate students about food, one cannot simply stop at harvest, at pickling, at pesto-ing. It is important to realize that the role we play in our community, and especially with older students, is not to simply say, “eat more kale, and life will be great, and your poops—even better.”  It’s about empowering students to care about what they make of themselves, their school and their community. It’s demonstrating that food has the power to spark change and can be used as a medium to begin to dismantle systematic inequality.

These students are the light of this community. If they make it to graduation at SEED, almost all will go on to a four-year university. With them, they will take lessons from their unique schooling and apply it to the rest of their lives. If students leave school asking questions, wanting to learn more, hungry for change, that is proof that education is indeed power.