I’m sure I learned something valuable at Edgewood Elementary School, but the primary sense memory I retain from those formative years is of yeast rolls, sturdy yet light, with an unmistakable aroma that filled the lunchroom and wafts through the dimly lit corridors of my recollection even now.
Food tastes better to me in summertime, which is maybe why the topic appears yet again in this space. This time, though, it’s attached to late June’s disquieting headline: ALABAMA SECOND-FATTEST STATE.
The good news is that Mississippi edged us out for number one in the obese adults category; the bad news is we’re tied with Tennessee. The better news, according to the Trust for America’s Health, is that Alabama’s children have an excellent chance to alter their dietary destiny.
Clearly the way to create fewer obese adults is to inculcate kids with good eating habits early on, and one person in, um, the thick of that struggle is PJ Ellis, the culinary brain behind GoodtoGo, a local gourmet meal carryout service. She’s also the cook at Highlands UMC Child Development Center and next month she begins a new challenge as she assumes nutritional duties at Creative Montessori School in Homewood.
Ellis left a substantial career in the corporate sector to follow theologian Frederick Buechner’s directive to go “where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” But filling the deep hunger of arguably the pickiest eaters in the hemisphere? “I’ve cooked since I was 12 and I’ve taken all those cooking classes for 25 years and I had this major in nutrition I wasn’t using,” she says. “I could use this big kitchen for anything but I was loving cooking for the children. I found that I was reading a lot of information about the problem this nation is having with children and their health, what’s happened over the last three decades with processed food and obesity and especially Type 2 diabetes—we never used to see that in children, and now it’s an epidemic.”
Ellis’s own memories of school cuisine in the Birmingham city system are inspirational: “It wasn’t fancy, it wasn’t the Mediterranean Diet or anything like that, but it was made from scratch. They didn’t have a lot of French fries and they did have casseroles and macaroni and cheese, but they made it right there at the school.” She acknowledges there were likely some processed foods, but thinks the school lunches of her generation were generally healthier than what she observed kids choosing in school food courts a few years later.
It turns out processed foods aren’t just a time saver for school nutritionists. “It’s a trouble saver,” Ellis says. “The more it’s processed, the longer its shelf life, and that’s why it’s cheaper.
It’s taking fiber out, it’s taking nutrients out and generally just adding calories.”
Serving breakfast, lunch and snacks for the pre-school set at the Child Development Center, Ellis realizes she exerts considerable influence on young eating habits. “I feed them as much as their parents do, and that makes me feel responsible to expose them to good things,” she says. “I look back at what I was given to eat growing up and I still like those things now. I think most people do. My friend Joanna, she’s Greek, she eats eel, she eats octopus, she eats feta cheese, she eats Greek things and she loves them. We like what we’re exposed to in our early years.
There’s something about that age that sets a tone. Yeah, they’re picky sometimes, but you keep exposing them to the good things that they need and it’ll come back.”
Interestingly, Ellis doesn’t believe in disguising food to combat the finicky: “I think they need to know, ‘This is broccoli, it’s a power food.’ You tell ‘em it’s important to them if they want to run fast or have big muscles like their mommy or daddy. Or just try it. That’s all we’re really asking them to do. If they don’t try it the first time, you know, they might try it the sixth.”
What’s worked at the pre-school center is what Ellis will be doing for Mama Montessori’s brood and what makes the menu work, she says, is freshness. “It’s not canned, it’s not processed. We love to feed them things that are in season, we love to go to the farmers’ markets and get things that are local, and the teachers are into letting them know all about that.”
It’s a nutrition model easily adaptable to small institutions of learning, but could this template ever be feasible at the K-12 public school level? Ellis thinks so, and she cites the experience of Jamie Oliver, whose Food Revolution series has been nominated for an Emmy this year. Oliver took a TV crew into the fattest part of West Virginia for the telegenic but serious task of demonstrating how local food cooked from scratch could fulfill school nutrition guidelines and, more importantly, be prepared on a local school lunchroom budget.
PJ is sanguine about the prospects, though.
“Jamie Oliver’s a famous person and he lived in [Huntington] for a few months and got to know important people there and got people to back him, corporations and stuff,” she says. “But at least it was on a network, so a lot of people saw it. You got to see the families with the overweight children, you got to see why they did what they did.”
What Ellis calls “a big credo” for her mission to feed children well derives from author Michael Pollan’s Food Rules, which she says are, essentially:
1. Eat [real] food.
2. Mostly plants.
3. Not too much. To which PJ could add a rule from her own observations among the kids:
4. You are what you eat, or, at least, you will be.
Courtney Haden is a Birmingham Weekly columnist. Write to email@example.com.