Guey Lin Elementary School
A Heaping Helping of Healthful Greens
When other schools are promoting just one veggie day a week, this grade school in rural Yunlin County has already made it four, and inspired the whole community to focus on healthy living.
A Heaping Helping of Healthful GreensBy Scott Wang
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 500 )
There is a kind of happiness that comes from resisting the temptations of brightly colored processed foods with all their chemical additives. This happiness belongs to those with discerning taste buds, who can tell what real food tastes like, and who are putting into practice the creed "eat veggies, save the planet," starting with their own plates.
For many adults the criteria for appraising the abundance of food choices is whether there are casseroles, a wide selection of meats, or whether fried chicken and French fries are on the menu. Yet Guey Lin Elementary School in Gukeng in rural Yunlin County has gained a measure of renown for dishing up meatless veggie lunches four times a week. Inspired by the school's "eat veggies" initiative, nearby farming villages have begun to adopt farming techniques that are gentle on the land and produce healthful food.
Guey Lin Elementary School, which has only around 60 students, is located in the mountainous Huashan area of Yunlin, widely known for its scenic beauty. Winding mountain slopes, gushing creeks, and towering green bamboo groves are Huashan's trademark. The area is also famous for its agricultural products, including coffee, honey, oranges, tangerines, bananas, and plums.
Students Teach Principal a Lesson
Guey Lin Elementary School may be small and located in a remote backwater, yet its students were able to teach Principal Jyan San-lang, who had spent many years in the capital Taipei, a surprising lesson in global environmental awareness.
Some three years ago, not long after taking his principal's job, Jyan was trying to encourage the assembled students to do a good job on their winter vacation homework. His voice full of excitement, Jyan announced: "Students who do their winter vacation homework well will be treated to a steak by the principal!"
Based on his previous experiences, Jyan expected the students to greet his promise with enthusiastic shouts and a dance of joy. But quite to the contrary, his audience remained completely silent this time.
After a few moments' silence, the students started to react, bombarding Jyan with comments: "Principal, eating steak is not good, it destroys the environment!" one exclaimed. "We want to eat vegetables to save the planet!" another chimed in.
During his 13-year-long career in education Jyan had grown used to teaching kids what to do. This was the very first time that his students had given him a lesson. Jyan was not miffed by the incident. On the contrary, he began to learn from the school's teachers and students, getting to know the health benefits and environmental advantages of a vegetable-based diet and organic farming.
Across Taiwan many elementary and junior high schools have begun to promote vegetarian school lunches once a week. How has Guey Lin Elementary School succeeded in implementing meatless lunches four days a week, and even won the affirmation of the local community?
The promotion of meatless school lunches began more than five years ago under the previous principal, Chen Ying-tsung. With the support of teachers Huang Chin-shu, Li Ping-kui, Peng Hsiang-ching, and Hung Jung-tsung, Chen set out to instill his students with the right ideas about healthful eating. That's why this food education and happiness project still continues today.
Peng Hsiang-ching had her first encounter with a meatless, vegetable-based diet more than ten years ago after one of her relatives was diagnosed with cancer. In a course organized by the Great Enlightenment Lotus Society, a non-profit Buddhist organization, Peng learned about food processing and the many chemicals that are added to our foods to make them more attractive and less perishable, but also undermine our health. She also heard that the livestock industry uses a number of practices that are inhumane or detrimental to the environment.
"Seeing how lethargic kids were in class, I couldn't help but worry that the Western eating habits that are so popular these days would affect the health of Taiwan's next generation," Peng recalls. She strongly felt that an unhealthful diet severely compromised students' abilities to learn.
Hoping to improve the children's learning and health, Peng made a start with breakfasts.
In parenting seminars Peng presented photographs of her own homemade vegetable-based breakfasts to share her nutritional insights with parents. She even let them sample her breakfast wraps, made with a whole wheat wrap filled with dried seaweed, alfalfa sprouts, pumpkin seeds and raisins to promote healthful eating.
Huang Chin-shu, the school's retired chief administrator, warns that ordinary people often mistakenly equate "vegetarianism" with a "vegetable-based diet." If we look at food based on its health benefits, many vegetarian foods are not necessarily healthful or may even be harmful, because they also contain a high amount of food additives or various processed ingredients. Only a vegetable-based diet is truly good for our health and environment, Huang believes.
A Wise Old Farmer's Helping Hand
In a bid to promote a vegetable-based diet, Huang not only experiments with the cultivation of a vast array of herbs and plants on campus for use in school meals, but also works on recipes for delicious vegetable dishes.
Aside from promoting a veggie-rich diet in the classroom, students also make excursions to organic farms in the area, providing the best opportunity for exchanges with veteran farmers.
According to Jyan, teachers may know little about planting vegetables, as they are too busy with class work and lack hands-on experience in farming. But the children's grandparents are the greatest sources of knowledge when it comes to growing a garden.
The children and grandchildren of Hsu Lian-kui, a 78-year-old local farmer, have all graduated from Guey Lin Elementary School. Therefore, he has a strong connection to the school and was happy to follow its invitation to teach the students how to create an organic vegetable garden.
For quite some time, the teachers and students had been trying to grow sweet potato leaves, yet they had always met with little success. So they asked Hsu for advice. At the scene a baffled Hsu only mumbled, "How can you stick the plants in the soil like that?" He then demonstrated the correct way to plant the sweet potato leaves cuttings.
Suddenly, the students realized that the sweet potato vines needed to be put into the soil at a certain angle, and if that angle wasn't right, the vines wouldn't grow leaves. Miraculously, the sweet potato leaves planted under Hsu's guidance proved a success.
For pest control Hsu has also made a tobacco slurry that is sprayed onto leafy vegetables to keep away bugs and other pests. He is also an expert in using natural, locally available materials such as betel leaves for mulching to contain weed growth and save money.
As before under Principal Chen, the current principal Jyan San-lang and his faculty are jointly seeking to utilize external resources. They invite family doctors, nutritionists, and volunteers of the Tse-Xin Organic Agriculture Foundation (TOAF) to give lectures at the school's family events on the dangers of food additives and the benefits of a vegetable diet. The school has even set up a teaching restaurant named "Guey Lin My Home" which revolves around vegetable dishes.
Gradually, the parents in the community began to accept the concept of a vegetable-based diet and to acknowledge the benefits of a change in eating habits. And "Guey Lin My Home" even earned a national award for outstanding creative school projects.
Over the years the school has gradually increased meatless days from once a week six years ago, to twice a week four years ago, to three times a week three years ago, to four times a week two years ago. Jyan not only hopes to achieve the ultimate goal of five veggie lunches per week, but also envisages Guey Lin Village evolving into a community for healthy living.
Jyan has observed that many parents in the community are now ready to accept the idea of organic farming. They no longer use pesticides on vegetables and are also reducing the use of agricultural chemicals on oranges, tangerines and other fruit trees.
With its veggie revolution that enticed the entire community to embrace healthy living, Guey Lin Elementary School tells the story of well-being and happiness resulting from genuine, unprocessed food.
Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz