Why we serve payasam instead of cakes?

“Aunty, why can’t we serve cakes in our canteen instead of millet payasam?” “I love to eat at Mc Donalds and KFC.” “ Pizzas and burgers are my favourite.” “I love pasta.”  These are some of the statements and questions children share with me.  I too like pizza and chips, and Pringles is my favourite. And yes, all the aforementioned foods are tasty, they come in a variety of flavours, catering to the taste buds of each and every one.

When I joined Prakriya, I too wondered about these things. I even wondered whether we Prakriyans tend to follow food policy with a missionary zeal. However, I took it upon myself to get educated about millets, the acidic and alkaline foods, whole foods versus processed foods etc. The more I read, the more I understood the food policy of the school. Needless to say, after being in Prakriya for over three years, I have become a complete convert. 

Being a science teacher, I also wonder about how the issue of food is addressed in our books. There is a chapter on food in class 5 science text book. Invariably, our discussions on food always start with the above mentioned questions and statements.  I try not to answer any of their questions. Instead we start our science class by seeing a video, a documentary on how endosulfan has affected the entire ecosystem where it was aero sprayed, and how this has affected and how it will continue to affect the health of the coming generations for another 20 years. Endosulfan is banned in India, but it is still sold under many different names. We then focus our attention to packaged foods and try to understand food labels. We also discuss about the genetically modified food, the pros and cons of introducing GM food in India. We also briefly talk about the status of farmers and the issue of farmers committing suicide. The chapter on food spans for almost two weeks, eight to ten classes in all, and we have discussions interspersed with reflection, critical thinking questions, learning and arguing. 

We also make it a point to visit our Prakriya garden, and children get an opportunity to clarify their doubts and take their questions to Pushpa aunty, who is the care-taker of our garden. Children’s questions range from whether GM crops are grown by the same process as the regular crops to the pesticides and fertilisers used in the garden to composting to the crops /veggies cultivated  in our own garden to how much does the garden “give” to the canteen. 

Some of the take-away for children as well as for me are:  the veggies/crops are organically grown; we use only natural fertilisers and chemical-free pesticides;  seeds are bought directly from the farmers or we save seeds from our own produce. This additional information that we use only pesticide free and organically grown fruits, veggies, grains and pulses, we hope will enable our children to make the connection between land, food and health. 

As a child, I grew up seeing the whole process of cultivation, there was an intrinsic connect between the farmer and the consumer. I remember vividly my trips to the market where we were allowed to touch, smell and see the vegetables grown. The very smell, feel of the veggies would “inform” us that certain veggies were grown naturally without any chemicals, we would call them “nadan” or “naatti” vegetables.  Turmeric, coriander, chilli, rice would be on display at various stages of processing, some completely sun dried, some partially, some could be powdered right in front of our eyes. Nothing was added. 

Children of today don’t have the luxury that many of us enjoyed in our childhood. The whole process of food from the farm to the table is available for reading/learning/studying  in their text books, but they are not seen or experienced by our children. It is for this simple reason, that gardening is part of the curriculum from Balambika to class 10th in Prakriya. To know about where the food we eat is coming from and to know the “age” of the food we  eat is all the more important in a world where we have jet- lagged food, pretty-looking food, genetically modified crops, processed food contaminated with chemicals.

It is a small effort on the part of Prakriya to serve us pesticide free food in the canteen for atleast two meals a day. After all the discussions and reflections, it is heartening to see some children extending their learning to their homes. Some of them say “I stopped taking any food containing maida.” Some of them have confessed, “though it is not a “cool” thing, I am taking more food during lunch because I get pesticide free food.” From a mind-set of questioning the use of less oil, less salt, why health drinks, why jagerry is used in place of sugar, we see a gradual, but a steady acceptance of appreciating local food traditions. Personally, it was a proud day for me as a teacher when I heard one of our graduating students saying, “ It is because of Prakriya that when I go out with my parents, I don’t stop anywhere to buy a coke.”

Geeta Nadarajan

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