Before Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution for America hit the flat screen, Tammy Cusick was starting a food REV-olution of her own, teaching 20 alternative high school students how to change their lives by revving up the quality of what they put in their stomachs.
Tammy is a science and culinary arts teacher at Palm Academy, an alternative high school in San Diego. When she visited her mother last summer in Laguna Beach, California, little did she know she was about to join one of the newest prime-time grassroots movements—changing the way our children eat from junk food that comes out of boxes, bags and cans to real food that comes out of the ground.
Tammy started teaching culinary arts last fall to 16- to 18-year-olds at Palm Academy, which is located on the neat, well-heeled and mostly conservative Coronado Island, also a Navy base just off the coast in southern San Diego. Before her trip to Laguna, she told Palm’s principal, Kevin Nicolls, that she was interested in adding raw foods to her culinary curriculum.
Kevin, a highly approachable administrator with shoulder-length locks who surfs and snowboards, is a five-year raw foodie and a 29-year “herbivore” (he doesn’t call himself a vegan or a vegetarian, he says, because “the v-words scare people”). He told Tammy, regarded as a pretty hip teacher herself, to run with it.
In Laguna, Tammy happened upon an article in the local newspaper about a series of raw food classes in town. She considered it auspicious, and signed up.
The first class she took was on raw appetizers, the second on green smoothies. Tammy brought her newfound knowledge, surprisingly happy taste buds and a couple of recipe books back to Palm Academy. She designed the raw foods course, including an energy survey as well as hands-on food prep and, of course, eating—the key to getting her teenage students’ attention.
“The beauty of food with kids is that they love to eat,” Tammy said. “We get them when they’re hungry, right before noon, and send them off with at least one good meal in their stomachs for the rest of the day.”
Palm Academy is an alternative high school for 20 select students with special circumstances ranging from familial abuse, emotional problems and drug use to day jobs, pregnancy and accelerated graduation. It’s funded by a California Department of Education pupil retention block grant and has, so far, escaped statewide educational program budget cuts. One of the first field trips for the raw foods class was to a co-op in Ocean Beach. “Some of these kids have never seen an onion outside of a Funyun before,” Tammy commented. “We bought beautiful organic vegetables and fruits and made an organic pressed spinach salad with fennel, tomatoes, orange bell pepper, avocado, sunflower sprouts, raw pine nuts, lemon and olive oil. There wasn’t a bite left.”
One student who had never heard of the raw food diet before proclaimed, “There’s more vegetables in this salad than I’ve eaten in my life.” Which said more than a mouthful for some of the other students, too. “None of them turn their noses up anymore,” said Tammy, known in Coronado’s culinary circles for her award-winning raw salsa.
Gerardo, 16, a Palm student, has a family history of obesity and diabetes. “I come from a Mexican culture so there’s a lot of fried foods and not a lot of healthy stuff,” he said. “But learning from the class and talking to my parents about it, I see a little change in what we eat, more vegetables and more foods that aren’t fried.”
Personally, Gerardo has seen a difference two weeks into the class. “I feel better than if I eat something that makes me tired,” he said after eating a jalapeno-spiced curly kale salad and date-nut torte. “After you eat something like pizza, you feel sleepy. A lot of people at school are talking about being vegetarian because they don’t want to eat meat anymore.”
Double-double grease bombs, ketchup sandwiches and monster-energy drinks are “foods” these kids are familiar with. Food coma is what they say they get after ingesting them. “After you eat something like the kale salad,” Gerardo continued, “you just don’t feel like you need to go to sleep. You have more energy, and you start thinking that you ate something healthy that’s not going to make you get fat or that’s not bad for your body.”
Feeling better is the only answer Tammy wants her students to get. But there is a bigger message under Palm’s compassionate teaching methods: They are providing beneficial and life-giving skills to teenagers ready to make the break from family ties and, sometimes, from generations of life-depleting habits and behavior. Scientists from Oxford University in England are conducting a three-year study in prisons and have found that increased consumption of “junk” food over the past 50 years has contributed to a rise in violence.
“Our initial findings indicated that improving what people eat could lead them to behave more sociably as well as improving their health,” said John Stein, professor of physiology at Oxford in an article in the London-based Independent newspaper. “This is not an area currently considered in standards of dietary adequacy. We are not saying nutrition is the only influence on behaviour, but we seem to have seriously underestimated its importance.”
Kevin was also a teacher and then principal at the two juvenile halls in San Diego County. A gregarious lead-by-example health advocate, he is knowledgeable in his own right about the affects of healthy eating on children’s behavior. Kevin has known John Robbins, author of Diet for A New America, since the early 90s and co-chaired the San Diego chapter of Earth Save, an environmental campaign Robbins founded that also helped improve school lunches.
His favorite reaction from the raw foods class at Palm was when a young man noticed that he and the other students were better behaved and more focused after making and drinking a fruit smoothie. “He asked for more,” related Kevin, “by saying, ‘Can we have some more of that natural Ritalin?’”
The culinary arts class at Palm became so popular last fall that students at Coronado High School, the island’s traditional high school with 1,100 students located almost kitty-corner to Palm, wanted a piece of the program for themselves. A survey asking them about taking a food class got 200 responses. The number was narrowed down to seniors only. Eighty applied, about 55 more than the renovated one-room Palm Academy, originally built as a schoolhouse for kindergarteners, could hold; 25 were accepted.
After three weeks of learning about the body-benefiting bonuses of eating uncooked and, hence, enzyme- and energy-rich fruits and vegetables, Dennis, 16, one of the students from the traditional high school, found the food “unorthodox,” in a good way.
“I actually prefer fixing raw foods,” he said. “It’s more engaging. And I definitely think it gives you way more energy.
I could immediately see the difference. I had a salad last Friday and went on a trip to the mountains and felt amazing the whole day, all the way up to the night, and it was just a salad. It was very unorthodox. I like it.”
Vol 30 Issue 2 Page 24