This is the situation: I am a first year teacher. I am a first year teacher at a remote environmental leadership school on the southern tip of Eleuthera, a skinny Bahamian out-island that dangles like a fishhook towards the Caribbean. I do not know how to cook.
Arriving at The Island School in 2010, I knew there would be challenges. Sunburns. The occasional jellyfish sting. Dormitory duty. But this all seemed like background noise given the opportunity I had to help students re-examine their relationship with the environment, to use the school’s own operations – which showcased methods of green living from solar hot water to biodiesel vans – as a model for inspiring a more sustainable future.
I never guessed that my culinary limitations would be a hurdle. I was a teacher, not a chef.
Then one balmy November morning, I discovered something spherical and edible left on my desk. Not an apple – they don’t grow in The Bahamas – but a coconut. A fresh one, perhaps collected a few feet from my door. It seemed innocuous at first. Maybe some sort of low-effort prank? What I didn’t realize was that the coconut would mark the beginning of an endeavor that not only tested my cooking skills, but how I understood the very practice of sustainability.
Enter Island School students. About fifty of them attended the program each semester, and – with the exception of several Eleutherans supported by scholarship – the majority came from expensive East Coast prep schools. It wasn’t cheap spending a semester on a tropical island, and I quickly discovered that working with children of privilege could often be alarming. After calculating her carbon-footprint in a classroom exercise, one young woman said, “Gosh, mine would be much lower without my second home in the Hamptons.” During a lesson on biodiesel, another student exclaimed, “I could run my Hummer on it!”
That isn’t to say my students weren’t wonderful in many ways; they were enthusiastic and eager to learn. But I was still troubled by my role in educating the already advantaged, especially in a region beset by poverty and joblessness. Why wasn’t I working in a local Eleutheran school? Or perhaps more significantly, why were no Eleutherans working at The Island School in roles beyond kitchen staff or boat maintenance? I wondered, at times, whether sustainability was just a hobby-horse of the elite. After all, an Eleutheran family struggling to put food on the table doesn’t want to be told that conch are endangered, that fishing should be limited. The Bahamian archipelago has a long history of subjugation – beginning with Columbus’s mercantile gaze – and in light of this history, “environmental imperialism” loomed as a potential hazard for those of us at The Island School.
That said, for students and staff alike it was hard not to fall in love with Eleuthera’s stunning biodiversity. From noisy mangrove cuckoo birds to coral reefs teeming with fish of every color, the island felt alive and precious. And considering Eleuthera’s low elevation, the threat of climate change seemed all the more real. Rising sea levels were already starting to chew away at coastal settlements, and an increasing number of tropical storms threatened the island’s already fragile infrastructure.
It was against this backdrop that a group of students approached me with a proposal. Their eyes were shining: a gift, perhaps of growing up with privilege. They already expected to succeed.
“Did you get the coconut?” asked a glossy-haired girl.
Before I could answer, another student added, “We want to have an all local meal.”
When it was clear I didn’t quite understand, the glossy-hair girl continued. “For our final project. We want to have a meal using foods only from Eleuthera.”
“Okay,” I replied, trying to recall all the Eleutheran-sourced food I’d ever seen in the dining hall. “So you want to make yourselves some sort of fruit dish?”
No, they wanted to make everything: salads, starters, entrees, dessert. They even wanted to make their own salt. And the meal was going to be for everyone at the school –
over one hundred students, staff, and faculty.
It was an enormous undertaking, and yet it made perfect sense. After several months of studying the benefits of eating locally and sustainably, the students had naturally begun to question how The Island School ran its kitchen. While meal times often included slices of local mangos or avocados, as well as tilapia and lettuce from an on-site aquaculture system, the school relied heavily on shipments imported by Sysco distributers. In other words, food produced via an anonymous and often distant industrial system. The students recognized the hypocrisy in this behavior. “One Local Meal,” as they decided to call the project, would be a chance to prove that the school could and should move towards its own message.
“Let’s do it,” I told them.
We planned a meeting the following afternoon, and in the interim I discussed the idea with some faculty colleagues. For such a passionate and dedicated group of educators, they were surprisingly pessimistic.
“Can’t be done,” one said.“We already source as much as we can, and it’s not that much.”
Their doubts were not unfounded. Eleuthera was once considered “The Breadbasket of The Bahamas,” but by the later half of the twentieth century, large-scale agriculture was mostly abandoned. Pineapple plantations became resorts. Dairy farms became golf courses. For a brief time, even celebrities like Princess Diana and Billie Jean King enjoyed Eleuthera’s beaches and crystal blue waters. However, after Hurricane Andrew devastated the island in 1992, followed by Hurricane Floyd in 1999, the tourism industry struggled to recover. Jobs on Eleuthera are now scarce, though many locals still hope swarms of tourists will return, even if it means sacrificing the island’s pristine beauty to the development of mega-resorts and cruise ship harbors. Some small-scale farming still occurs, but most Eleutherans rely on costly imported foods. Since many youths leave Eleuthera to look for jobs in Nassau or the U.S., the older generation often laments, “Young folks aren’t interested in working the land.”
It was against this backdrop that the campaign for One Local Meal began.
To procure enough food to feed one hundred people, the students needed to determine what could be seasonably harvested around The Island School grounds, what could be purchased from local farmers, and what could be sustainably gathered from the land and sea.
“We can start putting together a menu once we’ve identified all possible ingredients,” I told the students, trying to sound authoritative.
I didn’t mention that for most of my life, menu-creation had been inextricably linked with microwavability. One Local Meal felt like an important project to me, a powerful project, but already I worried that I lacked the knowledge to be an effective advisor. At least there’d be plenty of coconuts – evidenced by the mounting pile left on my desk – but it also seemed unlikely that we could fool everyone into eating only coconuts for an entire dinner.
Luckily, I’d already learned one important skill as a first-year teacher: never let on how nervous you really are.
And so, we necessarily abandoned the classroom in favor of Bahamian settlements, sunny stands of passion fruit vines clawing up abandoned buildings, and the breezy backs of pick-up trucks trundling through sugarcane fields. Rather than listening to me discuss sustainability in the abstract – the statistical carbon footprint of importing foreign food, for instance – “class” meant having an actual conversation with someone like Monica Miller, an Eleutheran native and the product of multi-generational farming. Leading the students and me across her farm, she described her crops in brisk, terse sentences – there was clearly a lot else she had to do – but even so it wasn’t hard to tell how much she cared about her land. She had chapped hands and dark skin, furrowed like her fields. She showed us how goat peppers and green beans could be coaxed from rocky earth.
“Curry soil,” she called it, finally cracking a smile. She could get us all the cassava we needed, she said, plus much more.
Class meant learning from Elidieu Joseph, a Haitian immigrant who had been hired by the Island School as a stonemason. Joseph knew what was edible and wild. Leading us on a hike through tangled coppice, he identified plants that could cure stomach problems, headaches, even sadness. After the hike, he made the students a strong batch of bush tea and spoke about his dangerous passage from Haiti to Eleuthera, trading Creole phrases for English ones. He was an expert and innovative farmer, and he even showed us how he’d planted peanuts on the roof of the school’s bike shed. He demonstrated how sustainability, self-sufficiency, and survival could all go hand in hand.
And, of course, class meant juicing passion fruit and pressing sugar cane; it meant harvesting beans and then shelling them. Homework was shelling more beans, then collecting salt from ocean water evaporated in the sun.
Afterward, there were still more beans.
“This is boring,” complained a student during a shelling session.
“And there’s a worm in this one!” said another.
I tried to find something positive about this discovery – no pesticides! – but bean shelling was undeniably tedious, time consuming, and unglamorous. As I thought about it, however, the tedium and the worms seemed increasingly important. After all, how could anyone promote “slow food” without actually suffering through the hours of preparation? How could someone promote organic produce without experiencing the trade-off of avoiding chemical sprays? The Island School’s mission was to promote a sustainable global future, a future it invested in its students. Though mostly wealthy, privileged, and white, the hope was that as adults – perhaps even as the infamous “one percent” – the students would carry this same ethos of environmental responsibility into their professional careers. Perhaps more than anyone, they might have the resources and opportunities to make a significant impact in the global fight against climate change. And if these students were going to authentically promote environmental ideals in the future, they needed to encounter the challenges of those ideals first-hand.
As did I. If I was going to champion local food systems and self-reliant communities as a teacher, I needed to know what that really meant. And as One Local Meal approached, I realized that while I may have studied neo-colonialism and food sovereignty – even delivered lectures on these topics – I did not know how to make bread.
Merlene “Mooch” Munnings knew how to make bread. She knew a lot of things. The mother of five children, she had worked at The Island School since its beginnings and was one of the most beloved (and sometimes feared) members of the kitchen staff –
woe to anyone who helped themselves to an extra scoop of grits during breakfast or cut ahead in line. When the appointed day of One Local Meal arrived, and the community waited with baited breath and grumbling stomachs, it was Mooch who scolded us towards our goal.
“Child,” she said to a student gingerly chopping an onion, “you cut that slow and we’ll be here all night.”
I immediately sped up my own carrot-chopping efforts, hoping Mooch wouldn’t be able to detect my ineptitude in the kitchen. I’d tried casually mentioning earlier that this was the students’ project, while I just served as the advisor. It turned out I needn’t have worried. Mooch figured out I was inept immediately.
“What on earth do you think you’re doing?” she said after I sprinkled some shredded coconut into a bubbling vat of pumpkin soup. In my defense, it was hard to resist a tiny sprinkle. And we had an awful lot of coconut.
There was little time for embarrassment, though. The next few hours were a blur of food preparation and probably a few silent prayers, but luckily we had Mooch coaching us along. Grated cassava had to have the starch wrung out before being baked into flat bread, vegetables were peeled, fruit chopped, beans stirred, an entire goat rubbed with sea salt and lemon grass. Mooch was a bit skeptical of our insistence that everything be local, but it wasn’t the first time she had deemed Island School students and faculty a little bit crazy.
Then, seemingly all of a sudden, the long tables outside the dining hall were filled with faculty, students, staff, and farmers and friends who had helped make the dinner happen.
And happen it did: first we served a salad of edible flowers and leafy greens with a passion fruit dressing, then cassava-banana bread with guava jam and honey collected from wild bees. Then came the pumpkin soup with its coconut infusion, dishes of steamed vegetables, sugar apples, avocados, a bean medley seasoned with rosemary, roasted goat, and finally a sweet fruit salad of melons, papaya, and coconut.
There was enough for everyone, even some for seconds, which were enthusiastically requested. Everyone seemed to be licking their spoons and bowls, brimming with excitement about the meal and possibilities for the future. They even liked the pumpkin soup. “I need the recipe,” I heard more than one faculty member say, words I had never before heard uttered in my presence. Maybe I could cook, after all?
Mooch, meanwhile, slipped quietly away amidst the feasting – she had to get back to her family – but not before announcing how proud it made her that everything came from Eleuthera, from the backyards of her friends and neighbors, and in some cases, from a tree just a few feet from the dining hall.
In the end, though, One Local Meal was nothing more than its name suggested: a single dinner. The next morning Island School students and staff again ate imported milk, bacon, and cereals for breakfast. And I was once again a mediocre chef, albeit one with a little more courage. That said, just as I’ve continued to experiment with stoves and spoons, the school has continued to expand its partnership with local farmers as well as its own agricultural efforts. It’s a slow process, but one that moves towards The Island School’s environmental goals just as much as it moves towards the economic and cultural health of Eleuthera. Too often “sustainability” gets cast as a kind of penance for crimes against the natural world, shouldered by those who can afford to buy organic or own a hybrid car. When this happens, environmentalism becomes divisive. Effectively addressing climate change, however, will take global cooperation, a sense of solidarity. Sustainability needs to be a celebration not a punishment. It needs to be empowering. One Local Meal was as much a push towards a sustainable future as it was an expression of Bahamian independence, because the reality is that the two can, in fact, go together.
Just like, it turns out, coconut shavings and pumpkin soup.