America's Bootstraps: The Chuck Wagon

America's Bootstraps: The Chuck Wagon

Thu 23 Aug 2012

Story by Bonnie Neer

Read part 1 here.

Even when forging new trails and territories, America has never lost sight of its “Chow” until now.

Disoriented by the dust storm of marketing and artificial colors, a whole generation separated from their essential, life-sustaining connection with food. America’s consumption of prepared foods became the cowboy’s way of life, creating a nation over 30% obese and unable to pull itself up by its bootstraps.

What Happened to the Chuck Wagon?

There was a time when the fires in the cook stoves burned brightly, lighting the way to the Chuck Wagon and a simpler, homemade chow.

But over the last fifty years, those fires went out. Even the school cafeterias followed Americans into the dust storm of commercially prepared foods. Replacing stoves with microwaves and warming ovens, the most important utensil has become scissors used to open the commercially sealed bags of prepared pizza, tacos, fish sticks and chicken nuggets.

No longer living off the land, many food service departments buy processed foods from distribution houses to be shipped rather than sourcing from local farms’ seasonal produce.

The Chuck Wagon Gets an Education

In early August, fifteen of the Food and Nutritional Service (FANS) team at the Novato Unified School District in California, donned aprons for culinary training. Yes, a professional training called Cooking with California Foods from the Center for Ecoliteracy.

This three-day training connected them with the local seasonal produce, five different flavor profiles (Asian, European/Mediterranean, Middle Eastern/ Indian, Latin American, and African), and how to use them in our kids’ six favorite foods: salads, soups, pastas, rice bowls, wraps and pizza toppings. Get a taste of the training on this video.

Pioneering the food service frontier in California, Miguel Villarreal, Director of Food and Nutritional Service and Food Revolution Hero, understands the importance of healthy food in schools. For the last decade he has been implementing changes that increased the handmade meals with fresh, local, seasonal fruits and vegetables in his food service.

Now, with real gratitude and a grant from the Marin Community Foundation and Kaiser Permanente, he was able to offer professional culinary training, improving the flavors of the food and the respect for his hard-working staff. Like many food service employees, their backgrounds range from mothers trying to earn a living while their kids are in school to those trained in food service. But what they share in common is a love of kids, food and an unacknowledged culinary talent.

Getting the Chuck Wagon Rolling

We can’t just demand better food in our school cafeteria and expect an instant change. We must welcome working kitchens back into the schools again by feeding the food service training that acknowledges the impact of their work on our children’s health and we must support one another every step of the way.

Yes, we have wandered away from our kitchens, drawn into the desert by a mirage of fantasy food, lost for so long we have forgotten how good real food tastes. A half a century has constructed habits and systems that destructed the respect and age-old understanding that health is served in the kitchen.

It is time to rebuild the fire in the cook stove.

About the author: Bonnie Neer is a Consultant, Writer & Speaker for Wellness Education and Initiatives. You can connect with Bonnie at


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