This blog is about the intersection between evolutionary biology and food. But also about practical applications, sustainable agriculture, and general tasty things.
While I'm not fan of nanny states dictating what people can eat, vegetarians really are the bane of institutional food. The core of ancient peasant cooking was using the whole animal and that meant cooking things in broths, sauteing and frying animal fat, and using bits of dried/cured meat in soups/stews/beans/etc. Countless restaurants and cafeterias have switched to MSG-based bouillon and vegetable oils so that their dishes are vegetable-friendly. I admire Chipotle for standing its ground and continuing to cook many of their beans with pork bits/fat. This is truly sustainable cooking, utilizing regional products to their full extent. Some other favorite restaurants of mine, such as Momofuku, also explicitly do not serve vegetarian dishes because they buy and USE whole animals.
Contrast this with meat-free Monday, which encourages cafeterias to serve foods based on imported industrial monocultures (soy/corn/wheat) in the form of "textured vegetable protein" or "veggie burgers" and often utilizing industrial vegetable oils, additives, and flavorings. Or low-quality factory-farmed dairy, often with food coloring and sugar added.
I've eaten at many cafeterias and tend to think there is really no way to do institutional cafeteria food well. The goal is to feed a large diverse group of people as cheaply as possible. And the industry is dominated by a few large corporations that have deals with processed food companies.
And the cafeteria model in general may encourage over-eating and other problems. Since I was homeschooled until high school, I didn't encounter cafeterias until I was older. That's also when I started to gain weight. It's no wonder scientists use a "cafeteria" diet in experiments to induce obesity.
The solution probably lies with smaller schools with more local control and parental involvement. Unfortunately, the Federal government is increasingly dominating education, so this may be limited to private or homeschooling-hybrid* systems.
I think there is also a clash here between the politically-correct ideal of accommodating everyone and the fact that this accommodation often leads to inferior compromises.
*homeschooling hybrid is what I did for a lot of my youth. Some education is at home, but some classes/other stuff is done with other homeschoolers communally outside the home.
I've noticed people get kind of upset when you insult your parents. I think that's why homeschooling raises so many hackles whenever I mention it. When I was reading Bryan Caplan's Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, which argues that people worry too much about how much their parenting will affect how their children turn out. He quotes all these studies that seem to show that parenting doesn't matter. Unfortunately, almost all of them are studies done on contemporary Western people.
Who really raises children in contemporary Western societies? Where do children spend most of their waking hours? Time surveys show that many children spend as much time in school as with their parents and some children spend more. School is like a third (or second) parent.
I went to school first in pre-K, at a small Waldorfish school, when I was 5. That's a little late to start pre-K, but I was quite small and sickly for my age and it became evident I had some learning difficulties by the time I was in Kindergarten. We couldn't afford to keep sending me to private school and neither the private school nor the local public school provided very good special-ed programs for children who are intelligent, but think a little "differently" to put it nicely.
So I was homeschooled. Often portrayed as a smothering and isolating thing, I never experienced it this way. I did several sports (even though I didn't want to, but my parents said it was good for me), played outside every day for hours, was never bullied for being a nerd, read lots of books for fun, did lots of church activities, hung out with my grandma, played elaborate games with my sister, and generally wasn't very isolated. I didn't need special ed classes, my mother worked with me one on one and eventually I surpassed "normal" kids in standardized test scores. My mother wasn't much for laboratory chemicals, but luckily there were enough homeschooled kids in the area that I took lab science classes taught by a former schoolteacher once a week for several hours.
I first went to school when I was 15, to a "mixed income" public school in Georgia. It's weird because I have very little memory of that year, well, of learning anything. I was in normal classes at first, where I was bored, then I was shifted into the "gifted" program, which was much more engaging. I do remember my "tech ed" class which we spent goofing off on MS Paint and where our teacher would tell us stories about the slaughterhouse where he used to work. I vowed to become a vegetarian.
We went through metal detectors every day and we weren't allowed to carry backpacks when we were in the building because they said we might hide weapons in them, but people found ways to be violent anyway. I remember some boys pushed another boy into a window outside the auditorium and there was glass and blood everywhere. I found the environment demoralizing and oppressive. I got sick often.
Boy was it a culture shock when my family moved to Illinois and I went to a "public" school that's the kind that makes people believe in public schools. Ivy covered walls, rowing and sailing teams instead of gang fights, relative freedom, teachers with PhDs, classical literature…I got an excellent education there in literature, art, and history. I have no idea what happened in science, but I took honors chem my sophomore year and was unlucky enough to get the hardest teacher in the entire school. I received a C- and was told by the department head not to bother taking physics. Luckily, some incredibly kind science teachers later encouraged me and I found ways to get around my weaknesses and later earned As in all my chemistry courses in college. College was, in general, much easier for me than high school had been. I went to a large state school, so it was the kind of place where self-initiative, not obedience, was what was important. I was used to teaching myself things, so I did well. I graduated top of my class, compared to the 50% percentile I was in when I graduated high school.
Whether or not homeschooling makes kids antisocial or weird is a matter of intense argument, but my personality is strikingly similar to my sibling and relatives who have different schooling. If anything, I think regular school often makes weird kids still weird, but miserable for being weird. Throughout most of human history, kids spent time with other kids and other people of all ages. You put a group of thirty children of the same age with a solo female (usually) teacher and no wonder it's Lord of the Flies out there.
Some of those weird kids ultimately come to hate their third parent. I know because I've dated and been friends with many people who went to school and would want to homeschool their children.
But for other people, homeschooling is an insult and they treat it was immense hostility. I agree it's unsettling. It doesn't work for everyone, it's not always consistent (as if regular school is), people might be taught the "wrong" things, and doesn't ultimately provide a large-scale solution to the education problems that are plaguing the United States at this moment. It's quite similar to the bizarre objection to the Paleo diet, that it can't work for everyone in the world to eat "paleo," so there must be something wrong with it.
I think the only thing that homeschooling left me at a disadvantage with is that I failed to learn to obey. Not that I think it's really a bad thing, it just makes me unsuitable for certain jobs, religions, and other institutions. But I suppose there is still room left in the world for disobedient people since I do OK, even if I occasionally have to pause to bristle at the nonsense we have to endure.
I'll never forget the time in high school when I took Great Books, which had some student-led discussions as part of the curriculum. One I led was "Is homeschooling a good idea?" Almost everyone attacked it savagely. Then I revealed that I had been homeschooled. People were shocked. It's as if I had told them that bread wasn't good for them…
I did my undergraduate degree in agricultural economics, hoping to work in food policy. I don't know what I was thinking. I think most economics-types who work in policy must be saints given that they have been trained in logic and are forced to support idiotic inefficient ideas. That's where I found myself. The worst part was the move to reform school food, which consisted of mainly
The problem for the firs two, as always, is calories. Why are American children so unhealthy? Some studies showed that people who ate fruits and vegetables were healthier, but show me the study that shows that feeding unhealthy people fruits and vegetables makes them healthy.
People are unhealthy because the majority of their calories come from absolute garbage. Fruits and vegetables don't replace those calories.
And where are we going to get these calories if meat is so darn evil? Huh? No one ever wants to take about this. No one wants to admit that the answer for some food policy wonks is processed tofu burgers or that it might be a good idea to spend some more money on some decent meat. No one wants to talk about the real crap that's in schools that having fruits and vegetables won't make up for: the sugar and fried foods that are still on the menu.
As for school gardens, they sound really really nice, but again, how much can this food contribute to a child's food intake? What is the likelihood that these children will grow up and have gardens or that they will convince their parents to have gardens? How much money do these gardens really cost? To make a real impact, you need less glamorous interventions like home economics classes. I'm not saying gardens are bad, I'm saying they probably have a trivial effect, but I'd really like to see some studies on the matter.
For school we keep kids inside when it's cold, but don't worry, the government has paid for some pathetic and ineffective commercials showing you can trick your kids into running around for a few minutes and that's going to prevent healthy problems. Sure. Just another grasping at the margins and ignoring the fact that for most of their day they will be sitting around.
But really, the whole matter of school and school lunches is depressing. It's so tragic that every day children are punished for where their parents happen to live. They have no choice what school they go to and no opportunities to chose the best teachers and avoid bad ones. Unless they are lucky to be born to parents who have the time, they will eat garbage for lunch. They will sit at a desk and learn standardized tests instead of real skills. This doesn't bother enough people in my opinion. If there is anything these schools are good at, it's producing people completely unwilling to question them.
Luckily, my mother wasn't in that mold. When she was told I had learning disabilities, ADHD for one, she didn't want me warehoused in our districts completely unengaging special ed program (most other kids aren't so lucky) or dosed with drugs (there is compelling evidence that those drugs are completely unnecessary and that diet can be just is effective). Not able to afford private school, I was homeschooled until I was 15, when she thought school would be more necessary since the subjects are more specialized and difficult (let's face it, it doesn't take a genius to teach kids basic math, and considering that my own IQ is so far above the average teacher IQ, I'm not worried about teaching my kids).
Am I an unsocialized freak? No one seems to think so, but that makes sense because I did tons of extracurricular activities with other children and played outside a lot. Like our ancestors, I had exposure to a wide range of people of different ages and to many of my relatives on a daily basis. I often finished my schoolwork before 11AM and spent the rest of the day outside. Maybe that's why these schools horrify me so much. I think it's time to fight for school choice and in the meantime opt out. Or start our own awesome school that let's kids be kids. Either way, the likelihood I'll have a second gen homeschooling family is very high.