At Large: No more chop suey and canned peas

At Large: No more chop suey and canned peas

The lunch rooms at my high school were in the cellar. The cellar was a catacomb. I mean, it might as well have been a subterranean burial place. Heavy, fluted, interlaced concrete arches supported a handsome, massive, turreted, marble-floored Elizabethan structure whose classrooms and corridors had high oak, beamed ceilings and tall stained glass windows. The building is on the National Historic Registry. Henry Huttleston Rogers built it in 1905 and gave it to the town, according to Christopher J. Richard, director of tourism for Fairhaven, as “an educational palace to instill in Fairhaven students a sense of the glories associated with learning.” Mr. Richard explains that Mr. Rogers, an oil man whose gifts to Fairhaven were not limited to the high school, brought the best pedagogical thinking of the turn of the last century to bear on the design and construction.

Without question, the best pedagogical thinking of the time did not extend to the dining conditions we teenagers experienced, in the dusky, half light of those sepulchral quarters. Nor was much attention paid to the cuisine. There was nothing palatial about four years of hot dog Mondays, chop suey Tuesdays, tomato soup and canned string beans Wednesdays, and on and on. The lunch ladies were decidedly more flavorful and varied than the menu, and I’m sure they did their best with what they had. It was a long time ago, of course, and whatever we patrons were thinking about what we were given to eat, we were not imagining that it ought to have been more stylish, appetizing, and nutritious, fusing diverse international cuisines — or even that it just ought to have been fresh. We sat, we groped in the gloom for the Jello, a highlight, and 15 minutes later we rushed off to the next class, several sculpted marble-treaded staircases aloft, maybe on the second floor, maybe in the gabled attic spaces. Everyone in those days was lean, not from eating right, but from avoiding eating most of what we were given and trotting up and down those stairs. None of this is to implicate the education we were served, which was superb, or the teachers or the colossal, inspiring building, at least its aboveground parts. All of that was tasty indeed.

Those early 60s lunch ladies most certainly did not win the attentions of international food magazines the way the hard-working founders, organizers, and practitioners of Island Grown Schools do. And none of us in those long ago school days enjoyed wonderful soups, imaginative salads, and no chop suey, ever, the way children in the Up-Island Region’s schools and other Island schools do. Plus, IGS’s beneficiaries all eat in dining rooms flooded with light and air.

And, none of the lunch ladies was named Woman of the Year, at least not in the four fun years I toiled there, the way Noli Taylor, director of Island Grown Schools (IGS), will be later this month. Women Empowered to Make Healthy Choices, a support system for women on Martha’s Vineyard, will announce the award at the Harbor View Hotel in Edgartown on September 29. Ms. Taylor will be one of three honorees.

Island Grown Schools, a part of the nonprofit Island Grown Initiative (IGI), is all about increasing the supply and of course the consumption of food grown in our hood. And IGS set out to bring all the healthful, nutritious food they nurtured into the schools. It was a big development effort, begun in 2007 and requiring the husbandry of enthusiasm among parents, lay and professional school leaders, farmers, and taxpayers. It was not farming work, but it was just as difficult, a backbreaking job of persuasion. Today, IGS works in all seven schools and six pre-schools. Each school has a garden, each uses the food it grows and other locally grown food. At the West Tisbury School, what was a cafeteria has become a fully found kitchen, where good meals are made for the students in the West Tisbury and Chilmark schools. That means that the IGS organization had to realize its goals working within the spending constraints of a regional schools budget.

And, IGS doesn’t just feed the children. It helps to teach them how food is raised and harvested, including especially food that isn’t harvested from the frozen food section of the market or a vending machine, and to prepare it, and to judge the difference between what’s nutritious and what’s not.

The IGS organization has no modest ambitions. “We seek,” their website declares, “to raise a new generation of Vineyarders who are connected to local farms and farmers, empowered to make healthy eating choices, informed about the food system, and engaged in growing food for themselves, their families and community. In school gardens, classrooms, on farm field trips, and in the school cafeteria, we help Island children deepen their understanding of the land, the sea, and the way food connects people to one another and each of us to the wider world.

“We hope to teach our students to: appreciate the farming profession, recognize the difference between the industrial and local food systems, understand the connection between healthy soil, healthy plants, and healthy people, know that everyone can grow food, [and] feel confident in making healthy food choices.”

It’s not school lunch as we knew it 50 years ago. It’s smart food.