Monday, August 12, 2013

Encouraging active food citizens

First published in Canberra's Child, August 2013

At what age should kids be in the kitchen using sharp knives and a perilously hot stove? At what age should children take part in decisions about what’s for dinner and how it’s made?

My hunch is too often children are limited by pre-conceived ideas about what's safe and what's appropriate.

In our crazy-busy and harried parenting lives, I am grateful for the invitation to have my children take part in a kitchen garden program (complete with composts and chooks) at their primary school in Canberra, with its spill-on effects.

Having the kids become ‘active food citizens’ is not without its risks or downsides. Meals take longer to prepare, basic tasks become full of human drama and the kitchen gets messier (I'll admit that haven’t let go entirely). But I have found that engaged children are more likely to appreciate their food.

My nine-year old son has always been interested in cooking and began making porridge for the family as a preschooler. But when he came home with recipes “with a twist” (like beetroot and chocolate cupcakes), he became even keener to experiment at home.

I interviewed a batch of Year 6 students about their experiences of their school-based program.

They said the program relaxes them, exposes them to different and often healthier foods, makes them aware of seasons and produce, and helps develop their gardening and cooking skills with surprisingly sophisticated results. It helps develop teamwork and leadership skills, provides them with opportunities to care for animals and reflect on nature and provides another reason to go to school:'

“It's not like sitting down in a classroom and just learning. You are still learning but you get to move around outdoors and it's more hands on.”
Many were proud of what they had done to improve the school environment.

The parents surveyed said there was little change in the overall diet at home but children said they felt better about eating fresh uncooked food:

“One time, we harvested corn and then did different things, boiled it, roasted it and ate it raw. Now instead of having my corn boiled, I always eat it raw, it's heaps juicier and tastier.”

Kids learned tough lessons caring for the chickens:

“When I first came, we had a bunch of different looking chickens. Then they got attacked by foxes... That was sad... I guess I love animals. I guess it was a big thing... We improved the chook shed with extra reinforced mesh whereas as before we had some flimsy chook wire netting around them.”

Some expressed joy that they could be trusted with sharp objects:

“My favourite thing in the kitchen is either chopping up onions or using the Mezzaluna... A little wooden board with a double blade knife with two handles on the end.”

Others said they felt less isolated, and more able to focus.

The program also challenges gender stereotypes. Girls also use power tools and make the concrete! And it has stimulated discussions about the connection between our two worlds - the inside and the outside. It has become a kind of modern and subtle intervention in behavioural, environmental and social change.

A kitchen and garden program (and there are several models schools can adopt and adapt) opens up all sorts of wonderful possibilities for learning and empowerment with kids as participants. It invites thinking about food self-sufficiency and sustainability and the choices we can all make.

But ultimately, the confidence and transfer of cooking and gardening skills at home is influenced by the extent to which children are thought of as capable and are allowed, expected and supported by their carers.

One student, with aspirations of being a junior master chef, was able to keenly apply a school lesson at home and gained invaluable confidence along the way:

“At home, I always try and make meringues and I could never get it right. Then recently we made them in kitchen and they turned out good. Now, I can do them. You can under peak or over peak your batter. Often, at home I over peaked my batter and it went flat and chewy. They say the test is, you pick up the bowl and if it falls on your head, it's not good.”

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Thursday, March 28, 2013

'Angry nation' on verge of an Arab Spring?

Anger helped bring an end to apartheid but what is it doing to South Africa now?

The recent high profile death of a Mozambican taxi driver tortured by South African police provoked Nelson Mandela's wife, Graca Machel, to sound an alarm. South Africa, she said, was “an angry nation” on the brink.

Taxi driver Mido Macia was quiet, unassuming. He'd lived in South Africa 17 years. He was tied to the back of a police vehicle in a Gauteng township and dragged through the streets. He was later found dead in police custody.

It is part of a disturbing pattern of police brutality targeting black foreigners as the number of economic and political refugees balloons. Mass unemployment (70% of young have no secure employment) is building resentment.

"Immigrants have lowered the wage rate, there's no doubt about that, and whole shifts of workers have been fired in one go and replaced by immigrants who have no union representation,” Patrick Bond, Director of the Centre for Civil Society based at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, told me. “Bad leadership has to be co-joined to structural factors that make all of this possible.”

Critics of the government argue the ANC has used the very poor from neighbouring Africa as scape goats to divert attention from its failures in government. The victims are from nations instrumental in the anti-Apartheid struggle, those that took in South African political refugees.

Bond says a remark by a former deputy security minister (made in the wake of a police ambush in 2008) that police should shoot to kill if threatened “gave police a green light".

South Africa’s police commissioner recently told an inquiry investigating the massacre of 34 striking workers at Lonmin's Marikana platinum mine the police were given “political support”. Emerging evidence contradicts police statements that officers fired in self defence. Witnesses say many were mowed down as they ran from police.

In Durban, a probe continues into revelations of a police unit that ran a hit squad alleged to have executed 28 people and planted guns on their bodies to cover up the crime. The unit has been shut down. The Independent Police Investigative Directorate each year receives for investigation more than 700 new cases of suspicious deaths in custody or other police contexts. There has been exponential growth in the number of civil suits filed against police.

Policing is no doubt a complex and dangerous job in South Africa. Over the past five years, more than 100 officers a year have been killed. Organised crime networks target police. Successive heads of the force complain it does not get the respect it deserves.

Many South Africans are taking security into their own hands, driven also by anxiety about home invasions and the memory of the low-key civil war that ended Apartheid in 1994. South African police say crime is decreasing, but private gun remains high.

It's not all bad news. The disenfranchised are using peaceful means to raise their concerns. South Africa has one of the highest rates of public protests in the world. So frequent are protests, commonly over services and utilities such as water - that the media, (still fiercely independent and a major strength in South Africa) rarely reports them. Activists are not coordinated. South Africa's Centre for Civil Society calls these street rallies 'popcorn protests'. They pop up and die back down.

Those who rally have some reason to hope after recent gains on single issues. The successful campaign for cheap publicly provided antiretroviral treatments for the ten per cent of South Africa’s population with HIV/AIDS has lifted life expectancy by 11 years. Striking farm workers in the Western Cape wine region have secured a significant wage increase as have platinum miners at Marikana after the tragedy.

The popcorn protests are getting louder. The volume is being turned up as the ailing health of the nation's eldest statesman Nelson Mandela sharpens the world's focus on South Africa. His wife can feel it.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Identity crises and Redfern Now

I can't rave enough about the ABC TV's excellent series Redfern Now. It's good to see diversity on the small screen. Why has also struck a chord is the show's theme or tension between the image we may have ourselves and the image others expect us to carry. That tension is typically heavily felt by “ethnic” and Indigenous cultures in post colonial societies.

The program is set in the inner Sydney suburb of Redfern - the first place to have urban Aboriginal community housing - a place known for its concentration of poverty and clashes with police (much of the old housing is being demolished as the suburb is gentrified with expensive higher density units).

The series is a real eye-opener for many Australians who aren't faced with the multiple stresses and issues that the characters do. It has a lot to say about the legacy of displacement, internalising negative messages and the psychology of oppression, the role of education and identity/belonging.

Take for example, the feisty Aboriginal elder, Coral (in episode two). She's involved in her community (volunteers at a soup kitchen), is something of a watchdog and is highly critical of what she sees.

She uses inflammatory language to describe Aboriginal youth in the neighbourhood - territorial and deeply suspicious of outsiders - as "oxygen thieves" and "numb nuts". She tells her visiting granddaughter that she must not get involved with black men (who she says find the idea of work "offensive", "once they take a shine to you, he's only after one thing... if you're lucky he'll p___-off, if you're unlucky he'll marry you"). Coral has internalised the language of the oppressor.

Coral's granddaughter, a university student, arrives in a taxi in Redfern and the cab driver quizzes her, "But you don't look Aboriginal" (Indigeneity is often contested by the dominate culture).