The Accidental Kids’ Food Activist

The Accidental Kids’ Food Activist

You might have heard the name Ed Bruske. He is a prominent feature on the sustainable food landscape—a Washington, DC, blogger, writer, chef and gardener whose articles have appeared in the Washington Post, Martha Stewart Living and Edible Chesapeake. Ed’s work in sustainable gardening has been featured in People magazine as well as in popular food blogs such as Chow and Seriously Good, and he has made numerous appearances on television and radio.

Lately, much of Ed’s time has been spent on something that has become a serious passion for him: the quality of school lunches. For several years he has also been educating classes of children on real cooking, so that they will grow up with the correct nutritious and culinary values.

According to Ed, it all came about quite by accident—starting with a few seeds he put in the ground.

From Reporter to Gardener

The first part of Ed’s professional life was spent as a reporter for the Washington Post. Upon retirement from that career, he ended up running the staff of a high-end catering business—but apparently the stress was a bit much. “I did that until I drove my family so crazy that my wife said I should stop and just do something else,” he explained to Natural Vitality Kids.

One of the first things Ed did was turn his attention to the land around his home. “We had bought a house on the corner lot here in DC,” Ed continued. “For some reason, the lot had never been landscaped. I remembered the garden that my father had when I was a kid, and I started a little garden plot out in front growing vegetables. We were so successful with the vegetables that I just kept going and turned the lot into basically our own mini-farm.”

The garden provides a wide variety of crops, including lettuces, greens, peas, fava beans, swiss chard, green beans, pole beans, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and eggplants. For the family, it truly is a horn of plenty. “We’ve really changed the way we shop and the way we eat to orient ourselves around this garden,” Ed said. “We don’t do much shopping during the growing season because we’re getting so much of our food right out of the garden. We’ve learned to orient our cooking style around what’s outside rather than shopping from recipes and other such sources.”

In addition to providing plentiful material for Ed’s blog, the garden has made quite an impact in the local area. “It’s a great conversation starter in the neighborhood,” said Ed. “I can’t tell you the number of people who have stopped on the sidewalk to have a conversation over the fence about what we’re doing and what we’re growing. It’s also inspired some other people in the neighborhood to do likewise or to plant in their little spaces that they have.”

From the Garden Outward

But it was the garden that began educating Ed in sustainability, and then led him out into the broader community.

“When I started doing this, I met somebody in my Master Gardening class who said I should start a blog,” he recalled. “I had no idea what that was, so I found out and began figuring it out. The more I looked into who was writing about food and growing food, the more one thing lead to another, and pretty soon I was just having my eyes opened to all of the different issues that were going on around food that I really had not been conscious of before. I became increasingly outraged about what was being done—or not being done—with our food system, and who was getting the money or not getting the money; just the general unfairness that’s built into the system, especially being here in Washington and kind of knowing how things work. That was news to me. So now I’m not only a food grower and gardener but kind of a ‘hair-on-fire’ gardener.”

Ed’s activities broadened. He helped start a group called DC Urban Gardeners, and he planted a garden at his daughter’s school. He was invited to sit on the advisory board of the local DC Farm to School network, which introduced him to an issue that would become integral to his life—the state of food in schools.

Seeing the Truth of School Lunches

“I had an opportunity to observe the operation in the kitchen of my daughter’s elementary school for a week, thinking that they were cooking food from scratch,” Ed recounted. “The terminology being used was ‘fresh-cooked’—and what I found was anything but. These meals weren’t even made in a factory out in the suburbs and trucked in every day; the school was getting frozen components from all over the country—chicken nuggets and Tater Tots and beef crumbles and breakfast quesadillas. All they really needed was a box cutter and a steamer or convection oven, and away they went. That was the school food.”

Ed began a series of blog posts that, because of what they were revealing, got a lot of circulation.

“I don’t think anybody quite grasped that that was exactly what it looked like,” he said. “It’s one thing to know vaguely what school food is—nobody expects much out of school food—but to see it graphically in photos, and then have how it’s made described, is quite different. Also, because we are right outside the White House where Michelle Obama has her vegetable garden and her anti-obesity campaign and campaign for fresh vegetables, the contradiction there was kind of startling.”

It led Ed to wonder how others were solving this problem. “I was just so outraged, and my readers were so scandalized they prevailed on me to start looking around for schools that were doing things right. That led to a project—a whole year long so far—involving school food.”

Click any image above to see a larger version.

Solutions up Close

In his quest for solutions, Ed visited Berkeley, California, a city that has instituted many measures for utilizing sustainably grown food for schools. He spent a week at the now famous Edible Schoolyard, founded by legendary chef Alice Waters. “It’s a lovely place,” he said. “It’s on the campus of Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School, where a few years ago Berkeley built a new central kitchen facility. They’re making all their food from scratch for the entire district. I spent a week there in the kitchen facility, documenting what was going on, while on the other side of the playground they were teaching gardening and cooking classes at the Edible Schoolyard.”

Following that visit, Ed went to Boulder, Colorado, to see what changes Chef Ann Cooper, aka the Renegade Lunch Lady, had instituted in that school system, after solving many of the same problems in Berkeley. “It was interesting because Boulder was a different situation from Berkeley, so Ann had a different kind of mandate there,” Ed explained. “I know it sounds kind of crazy, but it’s much easier to make these changes when you’ve got a lot of low-income kids in your school district. Low-income kids generate tons of money for the lunch program because they all qualify for either free or reduced-priced meals, which are paid for by the federal government. Boulder is not at all that situation, as there is a very small low-income population. It really was kind of a miracle, since Ann had to convince all those kids who normally brought a bag lunch to school that they should switch over and start paying for hot lunch.”

Both visits (with more to come) are documented in detail on Ed’s blog. As DC-area parents are now finding out, it is great information for anyone who wants to get the ball rolling in his or her own district to improve the quality of school lunches.

From his research, Ed doesn’t think parents should wait for the federal government, however. “Right now the federal government is broke,” he pointed out. “I don’t think waiting for the feds is the winning strategy for school food.”

Accidental Teacher Too

A further job Ed ended up with was teaching cooking from scratch in an after-school program. “That was another accident,” Ed said. “Someone I knew was teaching art at a private elementary school in the district and got the job directing the after-school program. About five years ago, she called me in a panic because her cooking teacher had bailed on her just before school started. She wondered if I knew anybody who might be able to take over the class. I thought that was a real interesting idea, so I proposed that I do it. I developed a kind of curriculum around teaching kids how to cook food from scratch—not dumbed-down kids’ food either, but real food, traditional recipes, cooked by hand and not with gadgets. We sort of pretend it’s a hundred years ago and we don’t have electricity or refrigeration or anything. The kids get a hands-on experience cooking with real ingredients.

“It’s very cool because they learn not only about nutrition and healthy eating habits but about various cuisines and techniques. They learn some of the basic how-tos of cooking, such as how to use a knife and how to mix ingredients. They are so good at prepping vegetables now, they could literally open their own restaurants. I’ve let them do all the work; I just give them directions.”

Teaching children about food with these methods has had a real result on the kids themselves. “The kids are incredibly excited,” Ed related. “And the reaction I hear from parents is one of worship and adulation as far as I’m concerned. They consider me a sort of god figure because I’ve gotten their kids to eat asparagus, green vegetables and things like that, which they would never touch before. It’s partly because what they’re doing is fun; it’s a group situation and they get reinforcement from me and from the kids around them. They’re a lot more willing to try stuff, especially when they can work with it in its raw state and actually get involved with the chopping, stirring, mixing and seasoning and all the things that you do. When children are involved at that level, it leads them into a pathway of trying new and different things that they might just reject out of hand if they were at home or in the cafeteria.”

Continuing On

If you visit Ed’s blog, you’ll find plenty to keep you busy. Not only is there the latest on what Ed is discovering in the fight for decent school food, there are tales from his gardening adventures, accounts of what he is teaching kids to cook, recipes to try, and much more. It is certain that Ed will be providing us with fascinating content for years to come.

And to think it all began by accident!

Check out Ed Bruske’s blog at www.theslowcook.com.