Tag Archives: gandhi

Life Labs and the Community Charter School of Cambridge.

Students at Community Charter School of Cambridge show their surprise when learning that Christopher lost 14 pounds during the One Dollar Diet Project. Photo by Katie Rieser.

During our recent trip to Boston, we had the pleasure of visiting the Community Charter School of Cambridge as guest speakers. At the invitation of a friend and colleague, this visit was both a chance for us to speak to students about our projects related to food and economics, and for us to observe a school that is far different from the ones we teach in.

We spoke to three different classes of ninth grade humanities students, and when we were finished, their questions, and overall inquisitive natures, forced us to reflect on how things have been going, and how our experiments continue to shape our daily lives. These students also knew about the power of this type of experimentation and reflection first hand, as they had recently finished projects of their own.

Over the summer, I had the privilege of being a fellow at the Ahimsa Center for Nonviolence at Cal Poly Pomona, and during my time there I spent two weeks learning about the lives of Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. As a requirement for the fellowship, participants needed to create two lessons for classroom use that would help our students better understand these men, and about some of the concepts related to their lives.

For those who have studied Gandhi, it is clear that he saw much of his life as an experiment. In fact, his autobiography is titled, “My Experiments with Truth” and so I decided that one of my lessons would ask students to do the same thing. They would have to change one thing about their lives for the period of one month in order to learn more about the subject, the world they live in, and ultimately about themselves. I named the project “Life Lab”. While I played around with the idea, a new friend of mine from the institute liked it so much that he decided that he would do something similar with his students in the fall.

Which is what brought us to CCSC. My colleague, Henry, had his students do a “sacrifice” project in connection with their humanities content. In fact, his students completed their projects before my students even began theirs. Like us, students had to do without something, and blog about their experiences. After we were done speaking, the students reported to us that throughout their projects they found that their grades went up, the number of detentions went down, and for some of them it was their favorite assignment to date.

The fact that the concept of our One Dollar Diet Project could be elevated to a class assignment where students choose their own topic and find meaning through experimenting with their lives, is both a powerful testament to trying on new ways of living, and humbling for us as teachers. If only  more schools like CCSC had teachers like Henry who found engaging and unpredictable ways for students to learn, we might just unleash the genius that resides in each student who would otherwise be counting down the minutes on the clock.

– Christopher

ps. In the future, the LifeLab assignment handouts and description will be posted on our site…so, stay tuned!

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Taking a Vow.

The Los Olivos dining hall at California Polytechnic University at Pomona is fascinating microcosm of the American food system, where in addition to health vegan options you can also find things like this: a bread just labeled "Yellow." Photo by Christopher.

The Los Olivos dining hall at California Polytechnic University at Pomona is fascinating microcosm of the American food system, where in addition to healthy vegan options you can also find things like this: a bread just labeled "Yellow." Photo by Christopher.

I never lived in a dorm. I never had a “meal plan” in college. And as a result I have never experienced or reflected on the daily impact of this process. Until now. In fact, the closest I ever came to eating food in a college dining hall was when I downed a small carton of chocolate soymilk at the University of San Francisco cafeteria nearly a decade ago. However, for the past week I have been lucky enough to eat at Los Olivos, the mess hall at California State Polytechnic University at Pomona.

As a fellow of the Ahimsa Center, which focuses on the practice and study of nonviolence, as a part of the College of Letters, Arts & Social Sciences, I have been well fed three times a day. During this experience I have found that the lessons learned during the dollar diet project, and during our most recent experiments in eating have significantly changed my habits. I find myself asking for smaller portions from the food service staff, making choices based on nutrition guidance from the USDA, and avoiding foods high in fats and sugars.

But in my suite, away from the brightly lit space, and public accountability of the college cafeteria, a package of Oreo cookies occupied a small piece of real estate on our kitchen counter. Yet the space these cookies occupied in my mind was far lager. I avoided them for the first couple of days. I felt that our study of Gandhi was a good reminder about the need for self-restraint. Yet the conversations late into the night gave way to deeper urges, and by one in the morning I was picking the chocolatey goodness from my teeth.

During the following day’s lecture we briefly discussed the notion of “vows.” So today I have decided to take a vow to no longer eat prepackaged cookies. I feel comfortable with this little step, and find that this will keep my sweet tooth on a leash in a simple but practical way. I will limit my sweet eating to specially home baked treats from family and friends, and rare outings at restaurants. It will be like taking my sweet tooth out for a walk every now and again instead of letting it roam the neighborhood.

I will replace this urge with healthier options like strawberries, melon, and grapes in the dining hall while I remain at Cal Poly. These succulent options have been readily available, as have decent vegan options at each meal. According to Dr. Tara Sethia, founder of the Ahimsa Center at the University, this is one of the things she has spent the last few years developing. Her commitment to nonviolence extends beyond the classroom and the study of Gandhi, and into the cafeteria where all students have the option to practice nonviolence (at least in eating).

Every day there has been a delicious nonviolent option, from curry to chili, and yesterday the grilled teriyaki tofu, steamed vegetables, and rice more than satisfied. The salad bars also stand in the center of the dining hall as a testament to student’s interest in leafy greens.

However, the standard fare is far from diverse: corn dogs, burgers, pizza, rows of sugary cereal dispensers, and liquid sugar flowing freely from soda taps. This contrast is a good representation of the current food system in the United States. Where healthier, more sustainable options are available if you make a concerted effort to find them among the faster foods. This is where Gandhian self-restraint comes into play. In my case with the Oreo’s, it may take something like a vow to eat better.

– Christopher

P.S. I am doing a new mini-blog during my stay at the Ahimsa Center. It’s called “Going Gandhi” and will document some of my experiments in truth as related to my study of nonviolence.

PPS. Speaking of sugar…Kerri’s sister has started a cake blog here. Her stuff is artful and tasty, so check it out.

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Sweet (In)Dependence.

Delicious vegan sugar cookies helped us ring the bell of freedom on Independence Day, as we struggled with our addiction to sugar. Photo by Christopher.

Delicious vegan sugar cookies helped us ring the bell of freedom on Independence Day, as we struggled with our addiction to sugar. Photo by Christopher.

While sitting on the lazy bike at the gym on Saturday, I glanced up from Louis Fischer’s book “Gandhi” to see Joey “Jaws” Chesnut cramming down his 68th hot dog to set a new world record and defend his title as part of Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog eating contest which has been held on July 4 for the last 94 years on Coney Island in New York City. Call it coincidence, but as I read about one man fasting to create powerful social change, another man waved a large trophy in the air, while 1.5 million people like me sat watching it on national television.

As part of our most recent experiment in eating, Kerri and I have been spending quite a lot of time at the gym, planning menus, and doing our best to eat well, but the process has been quite challenging at times. There is food everywhere, most of it is sweetened or salted to a “bliss point,” and when people get together, it’s usually over a meal. The eternal invitation to indulge is hard to resist. A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the power of vegan cupcakes during Father’s Day, but as Saturday was Independence Day the veggie dogs, potato salad, and sugar cookies at our friend Justin’s house were ready to be enjoyed en masse and pushed into the depths of my belly.

I went back to reading about Gandhi. More fasting. More political change. Then another glance up at the television. On a commercial break there was one ad proclaiming that you could “Use food to lose weight!” complete with before and after pictures. Another for a salad dressing that apparently had something to do with a man and his dog getting the paper (the sound was off). And on another television, a breeze of snack crackers danced around the screen as kids chased them into the house. Our culture is food obsessed, and utterly self conscious about our weight (rightfully so?). This duality is hard to reconcile in any meaningful way, and is exactly what I have been struggling with. At that moment in a room packed full of other people looking to be fit, it seemed comically tragic.

After the gym, I spent the morning preparing sugar cookies. This says it all.

But if that is not enough. I even made my own dyes for the frosting. A crafty endeavor stemming from a desire to not eat “chemicals,” or “artificial” food products. I think this is what literary people call irony, and our country’s attitudes toward health and eating are marinating in it. Regardless, while making the cookies I could not help but eat chunks of dough every now and then, and when they came out of the oven, it was easy to find the ones that had to be eaten (this one is a little too crisp, that one a little too broken). And so my physical exercise was easily overcome by the buttery baked biscuits of sugar.

I began to wonder what Gandhi would say about Joey “Jaws” Chesnut and an event such as this annual eating contest. I thought about my own struggle to eat well and get in shape. I wondered if it would ever really be possible to create lifestyle habits that are both bliss filled and healthy. If you have suggestions, please get in touch.

To the taste of sugar in my mouth,¬† the need to be fit, and a culture gone wild over it’s eats…

– Christopher

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