Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Are You Going to Eat That?

For some reading this, a piece about food may seem strange in a blog supposedly about school. For the rest of us who currently work in or attend schools, we can tell you that we spend about half of our time complaining about gym class, and the rest of it complaining about the cafeteria--even if we don't have gym class anymore.

The history of school lunches is rather fascinating, but it's also rather extensive, and therefore rather tiresome. Instead of working through all of it, I'll provide some highlights that intertwined with my own life.

My father, who by the way was born in 1939--so not nearly old enough to have lived in The Little House on the Prairie or anything like that, went home for lunch during school. It saved his school the cost of infrastructure that would be needed to feed hundreds of picky eaters every day, and most importantly saved everyone from the indignity of lunch duty. However, it was based on the assumption that most, if not all, kids would have a parent--let's face it, a mom--home to greet and feed the children, and more importantly to get them back to school for the afternoon.

My own elementary school achieved some of the same savings by requiring packed lunches every day. Except Thursday. On Thursday we had "Hot Lunch" which was probably pretty standard school lunch fare for the time--burgers, bar-b-que or meatball sandwiches, pizza, and such. All I remember, though, were the creme-filled doughnuts and the bags of sour cream and onion potato chips. Hot lunch was a lovely treat, but was probably based on a theory that some older people still hold, which is that all a meal requires to be legitimate and nutritious is that it should have heat applied to it.

In high school, things became more normal. Normal for Catholic school, anyway. It was possible to eat a "salad" made up primarily of pepperoni slices, creamy dressing, and croutons. You could also buy a Tastykake pie, an ice cream sandwich, and an IcyTea for about the same price as a school lunch. Or you could buy an official school lunch of pizza, fries, and chocolate milk which cost about the same because the government considered it Lunch, and not just lunch. It still galls kids to get to the checkout and find out that their meal will cost double because they didn't take (not eat, mind you, but take) the fruit cup in heavy syrup.

Apparently by the time I was in high school, they were trying to offer "Hot Lunch" every day at the elementary as well. I spent exactly one day on the drive-hot-lunch-from-the-high-school-kitchen-to-the-elementary-cafeteria crew. Someone had misinterpreted my lackluster grades and Slacker ways for an indication that I was the kind of person who may want to work for a living. Before day two I discovered going to the band room to play my trumpet during study halls, rather than carry steamer trays up and down the steps and in and out of the van. I don't know how the guys who stuck with this horrible task turned out, but I for one still spend my free time playing my trumpet in the band room.

One thing I do remember about our high school cafeteria, was that the frosting on the cake (real butter-cream, by the way) was no less than 1/2 the thickness of the cake itself. Also, if the little squares of pizza got dried out by the second day, they would throw a slice of cheese on top "revive" it. Grilled cheese sandwiches were so ubiquitous that they would cut up the leftovers for croutons.

This was due, it turns out, to the way we used to support farmers. In those days (and still, to a lesser degree) the government bought up excess commodities to support prices. It is still corporate welfare (since the main beneficiary is Big Ag), but keeping the country in the business of growing food, and doing so by giving nutritious natural products to poor people and schools, probably isn't the worst economic policy. To see that, keep reading (see also: T.A.R.P.).

Though subsidized cheese is still apparently on the menus in schools these days, it doesn't have a tenth the ubiquitous quality that it did in the 80s, in part due to the George Bush Thinks I'm Fat Act, as well as the subsequent Michelle Obama Does Too program. These efforts were intended to reduce the butter and cheese in the diets of school persons, based on the fact that high-fat diets were making us just a little bit obese. This may have been true, but it created a bit of a gap, and into the gap came Corn.

It begins, as so many stories in this country do, with the Iowa Caucuses. The strange rituals we use to select our president begin with the first-in-the-nation contest in Iowa, and end in the equally strange Electoral College. As a result, Iowans' interests hold out-sized power in our country. It turns out that much of what Iowans are interested in is Corn.

SPOILER ALERT: If you haven't read The Omnivore's Dilemma you may want to walk away from the blog and read it, since the next bit is mostly plagiarized from there. I'll wait.

For me, it actually started here in a New York Times Magazine article (it actually started on Fresh Air, since much of my reading is done on the radio). The gist, if you'd rather not read the 9000 word piece, or the 90,000 word book, is that we've really screwed up cows. Cows were designed, perhaps intelligently designed if that's your thing, to extract nutrients from a sustainable, solar-powered food source that grows on almost any terrain, in poor thin soils, with minimal input from us. Meanwhile, they return nutrients to the ground, improving the soil even as they take what they need from it. We weren't satisfied with how quickly this happened, and so started to "finish" them on Corn. Long story short, you'd also get a pretty nice "finish" on you if we fed you Snicker's bars for 14 months, though it wouldn't be good for you in the long run. For beef cattle, there is no long run, so what's the big deal?

The big deal is that feed lots are bad for cows (requiring lots of antibiotics to keep them from getting sick) and ecosystems (concentrating wastes without a real method of dealing with them), and growing Corn is bad for soil (requiring lots of fertilizer, much of which we make from petroleum). We've created this situation by messing with the market just enough to sustain an unsustainable system. If Corn had to function in the actual economy, without subsidies and with the environmental costs built in, maybe it would recede to a sensible place in our food supply. Instead we look for more things to put Corn into, lest it bury us in its golden river of starch.

When we're not eating Corn in the form of beef, we're eating it in the form of chicken, often in nugget or patty form--specifically, chicken (Corn), breaded (in Corn), held together with binders like maltodextrin (Corn), and even though they're "baked" at school, they were previously fried (in Corn oil) in a factory somewhere. All of this is covered in a lovely sauce sweetened with xanthan gum (Corn) and corn syrup (need I say?).

Some of this Corn probably got to us in part by way of fuel made from Corn. When we're not eating Corn we're putting it in our gas tanks--even if it does consume more fuel to make ethanol than we get in fuel from ethanol.

Not too long after the article in 2002 I discovered an important axiom: The Limited Power of Discourse. For all of the talking we do in our society, and how intelligent and sensible (or explosive and strident) the arguments may be, very few minds are changed these days, and very little happens when they are. Michael Pollan has been making these arguments for a decade and we haven't fixed this. Really, we haven't changed much of anything in that time, as far as I can tell.

The other axiom it brings to mind is The Power of Institutional Laziness. Rather than fixing the butter and cheese problem with lower-fat fresh food made from actual ingredients, school lunch programs found another shortcut in the form of processed foods (Corn). In my school you can buy a lunch of pot pie (kind of a thick chicken noodle soup, for anyone living outside of PA Dutch country) with a roll, a bowl of potato soup, a cookie, and a strawberry milk for a federally sanctioned Lunch (by the way, they will hand you, completely without irony, Margarine (Corn) for your roll--though the saltshakers are still banned). One way you can tell there's no nutritional value in that lunch is that the only color comes from the strawberry milk. If Michael Pollan's arguments (and those of others, such as Jamie Oliver) do start to penetrate, look for some other shortcut to soon follow. Serving real food that kids (and grownups, for that matter) will actually eat is hard, which is why they'll probably find solution that doesn't actually fix any of this.

Until then, we will continue to complain about the cafeteria (and gym class). If nothing else, the effort burns some of the calories from all of that hydrolyzed vegetable protein (Corn) they're feeding us now.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Cults: Why They're Bad, and How to Get in One

In Catholic school, we often had the same teacher for Social Studies one year and Religion the next. Therefore, it was either World History with Mr. Beazley, or Religion with Sister Maryann, or the other way around, but at some point my colleagues and I were faced with the definition of "cult." It may have been this, but I remember it more as:

cult (n.)
1. Begins by creating a sense of exclusivity through a complex and/or grueling initiation procedure.
2. Celebrates rites, symbols, and rituals that unite the members but seem foreign or even frightening to outsiders.
3. Imposes its own special meaning on major and minor life events, such as birth, death, eating, sex, and so on.
4. Expects members to display small trinkets, charms, stickers, tatoos, or hand-gestures employing cult symbolism to communicate wordlessly with others.
5. Centered around a special text, manifesto, or creed from which they recite or chant at gatherings.

Our question at the time was, how is this different from the Catholic Church? Is it only size that matters here?

First, a bit of disclaimer: We use the word "cult" with relative abandon these days, but there are some very upsetting real world examples. The oft-used expression "drink the Kool-Aid" refers to these guys, and the ATF is a bit tainted for people of a certain age (i.e. my age) because of this. The cults we'll be talking about here share characteristics with these other more serious manifestations, but I'm in no way suggesting that they're the same. Part of the coarsening of rhetoric in our time is due to the fact that we've turned nazi, socialist, and murderer into prefixes and suffixes of far too many normal terms like feminist, environmental, and ax.

Exclusivity is often an important ingredient in cults. This can be generated through any number of initiation procedures, which may include: a limited pool of open spots, having initiates take a test on specific knowledge of the organization, and/or swearing of an oath of allegiance (forsaking all others)--heck, just to become an American citizen you need to do all of that. In the arts, it usually also involves an audition. My wife talks about the fact that her high school band front--we called it that in the 80s, I know it's "guard" now--had tryouts. Rarely, if ever, was anyone cut, but the very process of auditions produced a sense of unit cohesion. I'm reminded of the Groucho Marks quote: "I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member."

Sometimes, though not always, initiation practices descend into hazing. Sometimes initiation processes themselves can be considered hazing. Either way, this is where the real horrors begin. Recently, the reaction to the tragic death of drum major Robert Champion was probably for many people, "What? Hazing? In BAND?"

The simple answer is, yes. Obviously, it's not usually fatal, but hazing is often a part of bands and lots of other organizations that experience success, in part, by developing unity among members. The fact that bands in some schools are more popular and powerful than the football teams they "support" means that they can be responsible for much of the same cruelty that we often associate with athletes--particularly athletes in violent sports. For an excellent and much more informed rant on this sort of thing, see Frank Deford's take on hazing here.

The worst part is when this hazing is not only ignored by the institution, but perpetuated by it. In a way, all forms of elder privilege contribute to the problem. Every time a member of an organization looks forward to a day when he no longer must _______ , or she finally can _______ , or he can make the incoming people ________, just for getting older and more senior in the group, the cycle repeats itself. Hazing may officially be the act of the members of the organization, but it always the fault of the leaders of it. Through things done or left undone, those at the very top are what keep it going.

You may not think you participate in hazing, but you do. Something like 20% or 54% of the Federal budget, depending on who you ask (see also: Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics), goes to military spending. This means that you contribute to the largest, most efficient, and most official hazing organization in the world. The United States Armed Forces.

I have a special perspective on this, because I came remarkably close to becoming a Marine. The short version of the story is that I went in for the whole college-is-far-too-expensive-to-be-worth-it thing, and was convinced that I was going to play in the Commandant's Own Drum and Bugle Corps. Through the recruiting process, I learned military's theory of boot camp. The idea is that the best method of building self-esteem is to first destroy whatever you've started with, so that you are a clean slate for their own United States Armed Forces version of it. Your brain and spirit are stored on a hard drive, and step one is to reformat it.

Some version of this is at work in lots of initiation and hazing theory. The idea that you can and should break someone down so that you have a clean slate to start fresh permeates most cults, and therefore most of society. We even call it brainwashing.

Why, then, would anyone want to be in a cult? The answer may be that having people around who are officially on your side is very attractive. I know with fraternities, one of the selling points was that if you ever meet Keith Lockart, or Burl Ives, or Andrew Carnegie, or Mister Rogers wouldn't it be nice to have something in common with them? Going through some moderate discomfort is certainly worth it to have a whole network of people who will always be there to get your back.

This is certainly easier when members of your cult readily identify themselves. It's probably the reason for all of the symbols and handshakes and pins and stickers and all of it. We all know the symbols of most of the world's major religions:

And even some of the minor ones:

But, if Dan Brown has taught us anything, it's really these guys that we need to be concerned about:

or maybe:

Organizations that may be normal in most schools may be cults in yours. This may or may not be a bad thing, but it is certainly worth considering if all you're really after is a bit of exercise, or a chance to play the tuba. Look for:
  1. Inside jokes--Do they often exchange knowing looks, followed by spontaneous laughter at seemingly innocuous things?
  2. A common language--Do members seem to have their own terminology for things, and their own way of talking secretively while in the midst of others?
  3. Secrecy--Do members start sentences, and then decline to finish them? Related side-note: I took a pledge to keep secret quite a number of things for my fraternity, but I've forgotten what they were. Forgetting the secrets is fine--it actually makes them much easier to keep, however, in some cases I remember things that I'm not sure whether I must keep secret or not.
  4. Loyalty--not always a problem in itself, but if you get death stares from making a simple joke or comment, well, you know.
  5. Hierarchy--the more clearly defined the strata of initiates, full members, and various layers of leadership, the more people in the organization care about ascending to the next level. It can also lead to power struggles and abuses.
Cults may not be entirely bad, but they can very easily become so. A sports team, a club, or a musical ensemble has a specific function, but these other aspects operate on kind of a shadow level. Sometimes the secrecy and the hierarchy and the hazing and so on overtake the stated purpose of the organization and can dwarf its official purpose. It is possible for tremendous efficiency to be found in building on a tradition, providing a useful shortcut to excellence. Also, when members police their own, passing on work-ethic, procedural elegance, and functionality it can save time and effort. However, when the way the organization runs and the way the power structure works become much more than a means to an end, you may have yourself, well, a cult.