Notes from France: Engaging Our Senses and Sense of Community

April 25, 2007

by Jean Saunders, HSC School Wellness Director

Jean is attending the 2007 International Exchange Forum on Children, Obesity, Food Choice and the Environment in the Loire Valley of France. Her entries will be posted throughout the week.

Deborahmadison_2 Tuesday afternoon brought more fascinating and inspiring new information, including a wonderful keynote from Deborah Madison, a multi-talented chef who founded Greens, the famous vegetarian restaurant in San Francisco.

She spoke about the importance of really experiencing food with all our senses, and the importance of giving children the opportunity to have this experience. This was quite moving, but it was a story Deborah told about children in Santa Fe that made the biggest impression on me.

Children at the elementary school she described had fresh produce at their school: peaches, pears, tomatoes and wonderful seasonal fruit. We all know how much better fruit tastes when it is fresh, in season, and just perfectly ripe. The problem at this elementary school is that the children — although they had access to fresh food — were never able to taste it when it was ripe.

Why? The cafeteria staff always served the produce when it was still hard and green. They were so afraid that the fruit would spoil that they refused to wait until it was ready to eat before serving it.

The USDA stipulates that food received through the Fruit and Vegetable Program must be used — it cannot be thrown out or given away. The cafeteria staff did not feel they could risk waiting for the produce to ripen. So instead of juicy fresh peaches, the children were given dry green ones.

This school’s story brings to the surface all the small ways that our best efforts can be sidetracked, but it also highlights the simple changes that could bring children the remarkable food experiences (fresh, ripe peaches!) that will shape their lifelong approach to eating.

As we think about all the senses we engage while enjoying that perfect peach, another of Deborah’s stories reminds me of the extra enjoyment and value that the school community can bring to food.

One of the things I hoped to observe in France was the sense of community around the table that we so often hear flourishes in Europe. But the most moving example of this I’ve heard so far came from a high school Deborah told us about in the U.S., where the students have a fresh salad bar available at lunch.

“Sometimes food tastes better at school,” one of the students told her, “because it tastes better when we eat it with our friends.”