When Food for Thought Ojai (FFTO) began its work in 2003, there was a different food culture in America. Before films like Supersize Me, Fast Food Nation and Food, Inc. became parts of our collective consciousness, serving fast-food in public schools didn’t invite the same reproach you can expect now. There was a time when kids in the Ojai Unified School District quite happily chose from a cafeteria stocked with weekly enticements from Domino’s Pizza and Taco Bell.
These days, it’s hard to say if kids in Ojai schools would even enjoy that fat- and sodium-laden filler. For the past 10 years, Food for Thought Ojai has worked in OUSD elementary schools to instill in children and their families an awareness of healthy eating and ecologically minded food production.
On Friday afternoon, FFTO will celebrate its 10th anniversary at the school garden at Topa Topa Elementary school in Ojai. Joining the festivities will be slow-food luminary Alice Waters, whose 40-year culinary and environmental advocacy career includes the creation of the world-famous Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse, and the formation of The Edible Schoolyard Project at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Berkeley, which has served as a model for a growing number of classroom garden programs across the country.
The idea for FFTO came when the late environmental advocate Marty Fujita and farmers Jim Churchill and Steve Fields began discussing ways they could positively influence nutrition in Ojai schools.
“We wanted to have more fresh, prepared food [in school cafeterias], as opposed to fast food,” said Jim Churchill, the organization’s co-founder, who is also known for growing and popularizing the Pixie tangerine. Just two years after creating the first school-garden at Topa Topa Elementary, all elementary schools in Ojai had salad bars featuring school-garden-grown produce.
In 2008, the program hit a bump in the road when OUSD had to end the FFTO salad bars, despite their popularity among students. “We were pretty naïve; we didn’t understand the ramifications of it being a federal program,” said Churchill. “It’s not as simple as saying, ‘Yeah, let’s make some salad!’ There are complex regulations, and school budgets are tight.”
So early on, the organization had to re-define its aims. Rather than focusing on school lunches as a primary vehicle for raising food literacy, it intensified efforts to have the garden become a part of the classroom, in much the same way that Alice Waters has done with The Edible Schoolyard Project. With the cooperation of OUSD, what FFTO has helped build is a curriculum built around California State Content Standards for grades one through six.
Children in these grades learn the scientific method through hands-on work in school gardens. They gain an understanding of agriculture through visits to local farms. They study nutrition in class with their teachers. Composting and recycling are taught as methods of resource conservation. And the kids learn to appreciate the taste of fruits and vegetables picked at the height of their flavor.
Some may wonder whether kids aren’t daydreaming about Cheez-Its while chewing on chard, but with nearly every child in OUSD having participated in the FFTO curriculum, their awareness of healthy food now is surprising.
“[When] we served hummus and pita bread 10 years ago, I probably would have answered about 50 times the question ‘What is this?’ ” said Lori Hamor, executive director of FFTO. “Now you serve it, and kids run up to you and say, ‘Oh, hummus! I know what this is!’ ”
Getting kids and their families pumped about healthy food choices and locally produced food isn’t the challenge it once was. Cooking shows are popular family entertainment. People show off their meals on Instagram. Restaurants are touting the use of farmers market produce. And the first lady is setting the tone for federal efforts that encourage healthy eating choices.
“There’s not as big of a hard sell on what we’re doing. You don’t have to convince people that eating well and supporting our local farmers are good things anymore,” said Hamor. “But the realities of financing it are still very much going to be on our plate.”
One exciting branch of FFTO’s efforts is its work to facilitate a collaboration between OUSD and school districts in Ventura, Oxnard, El Rio and Port Hueneme to pool their needs and resources through setting up a farm-to-school produce purchasing partnership that will be sponsored by a USDA grant.
New federal guidelines mandate that half of lunch plates be fruits and vegetables, and thanks in part to FFTO, schools in these districts will be meeting that through providing produce from local farms, which also helps keep money in our local economy.
“[We’re looking at it as] McGrath [Family Farms] has this much lettuce available at this time of the year, and these school districts need this much. Is that the right match? Who are the other farmers that can help fill in?” said Hamor. “We’re putting in systems that haven’t been in place before.”
Having Alice Waters join in celebrating FFTO’s progress makes sense from many angles. Waters has urged Americans to eat local, organic produce for decades. According to 60 Minutes, she has done more to change the way Americans eat than anyone else. When she founded The Edible Schoolyard Project in 1996, Waters set off a wave of school-garden instruction in the United States. And she gave Ojai agriculture a big leg-up when she used Jim Churchill’s Pixie tangerines on the Chez Panisse menu alongside his name.
“For farmers who are taking particular care with the quality of what they are growing, she has created the possibility of an existence,” said Churchill, adding, “I’m honored to know her and I’m honored to have her come to Ojai for us.”
Food for Thought Ojai, 10 year celebration on Friday, April 26, 4 to 7 p.m. at Topa Topa Elementary School, 916 Mountain View Ave., Ojai. It’s free and open to the public. There will be garden tours, live music and prizes from sponsors such as Dole Organic, Patagonia and Nutiva. For more information, visit www.foodforthoughtojai.org.