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Thursday, May 5, 2016 12:20 am

Eating real

Before McDonalds came to town after the Second World War, in the late ’40s and the ’50s, we ate differently than today. In fact we got our food in different ways.

At my grandparents’ farm in Menard County there was a large vegetable garden outside the back door. As you left the house you walked under a lengthy grape arbor and arrived at a sizable plot of land fully fenced and with rows of carrots, radishes, beans, asparagus, lettuce, garlic, onions, potatoes and tomatoes. Sweet corn for roasting ears was grown in rows next to the field corn across the road.

On a sandy slope along the field road to the Salt Creek bottom was the melon patch with cantaloupe and watermelons.

I remember churning butter from their own cows’ milk. In the spring there were morel mushrooms from their woods and in the fall grandfather would shoot ducks and geese as they flew over the farm.

The men on the place regularly set trotlines in Salt Creek to catch catfish. There were also mussels in the sand there. Near the barn was a chicken coop, providing eggs all year and occasional birds for frying or roasting.

Every fall a neighbor, Billy Edwards, slaughtered hogs. Grandfather bought hams from him, brought them home, trimmed them, covered them with his secret rub and hung them in the smokehouse. For days he tended the smokey burner fueled by hickory logs from the woods, making the most wonderful country ham I have ever tasted. I have his recipe for the process and it begins “trim fifty hams.”

Much of the produce from the garden was canned in Mason jars and was part of winter meals.

My city grandparents also had a garden. In those days most homes had gardens.

Then the prosperity of the ’50s hit and eating habits changed. Unlike my grandmothers, women increasingly took jobs outside the home, leaving little time for food preparation from scratch.

I remember distinctly the day my uncle brought home the latest thing that his company was selling: cake mix. No longer did my grandmother have to mix cake batter. The mix was easy and fast and her cakes never again tasted as delicious as they had.

Fast food and processed food soon took over. While we all thought it was wonderful, in fact it wasn’t. Over the years diabetes has become a major affliction of our population, as have obesity, high blood pressure, heart and other health problems caused by processed foods. We stopped eating real. But a new movement is bringing back the old days of healthy eating.

We have learned that the stuff we were eating was crammed with additives with chemical names we didn’t recognize and couldn’t pronounce. We did recognize sugar and sodium and found that processed food and fast food contain staggering amounts of both.

First Lady Michelle Obama has worked to make us aware of the problems our diet is causing and people on the local level are now working to move America, especially American kids, back to a healthy diet.

Locally the organization genHkids is leading the movement. Using the slogan “Eat Real, Move More” they are working with schools and community members to motivate kids to eat healthy, which means vegetables and fruits and food prepared using healthy recipes. They are trying to feed kids the way we were fed on my grandparents’ farm.

A major task of genHkids is getting healthy food back into the schools. They have worked with 24 schools in 8 districts. Slowly the schools are bringing back meals cooked on site. This is particularly important because of the high numbers of kids who are homeless or living at the poverty level. For many the lunches and breakfasts at school are the only meals they get.

My wife, Sylvia, a reading teacher at Fairview Elementary, reports that since the menus have included vegetables and fruits the kids there have greeted meals with a new enthusiasm. They are less likely to misbehave in school, less likely to fall asleep in class and better able to concentrate when they are adequately fed.

GenHkids studies how much food is thrown away after a meal at the schools they serve. Their studies show, after a brief period of adjustment, students begin consuming more of their lunches when offered a fresh, from scratch meal everyday.

In one school plate waste (meaning food thrown away after the meal) began with an average of 63 percent with a “heat and serve” menu. After the transition to a fresher menu, plate waste decreased to an average of 36 percent, meaning students ate more of the nutrient-dense foods that help them grow strong and smart.

And they are bringing back gardens. The group now supports three community gardens which supply produce to their neighborhoods. In 2015 the genHkids gardens supplied more than 2,000 pounds of food. While the group has a professional farmer planning and directing the garden work, it relies primarily on volunteers. This past year 170 volunteers worked in the gardens and 56 of them were kids.

It turns out that when kids learn how food is grown and are part of the process, they eat the produce with gusto and excitement. Not only is genHkids growing food in their gardens, they are also growing knowledgable consumers.

It is clear that kids dig healthy food when they are raising it by doing the actual digging. And more and more of us, kids and adults, are eating real again.

Phil Bradley of Chatham is happy that spring is here, bringing the return of gardens and farmers markets as an antidote to our over-reliance on fast and processed food.

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