“You are what you eat”

“You are also what you are schooled to eat”

Food is an intrinsic part of our daily life. Since the birth of a child, what, when and how food is, is dictated according to different communities’ way of life. As a child grows up, the caste, race, and the class community they grow up in determines their food choices. Apart from our positionality of birth, the systems we engage with also influence the food choices we make. One of the systems of influence – the education system – plays a very omnipresent role. What we eat and how we engage with the larger food systems can be dated back to our first lesson in school. Schooling of food is an ever present but rarely engaged with narrative. Schooling of food in the context of this article refers to the process of education/training given during school which impacts food choices. Writing this article has been a difficult task as it has been a challenge to bring a cohesive flow to the myriad experiences of schooling on food. This article is an exploration of the nuances of how classroom hierarchies, school meal timings, and homogenized curriculums continue to play its role on what, how and when we eat today.

“A for Apple, B for Ball”

It was during one of the sessions with children in a remote indigenous village inhabited by Konda Reddy adivasis1, when the disconnection between our food and the larger schooling system glared at my face. As part of our project, Rela, we were requested by the villagers to teach many subjects to children, including English. Our first session was to teach them the alphabet, and like a programmed bot, we started with A for Apple. The word “Apple” opened up a floodgate of questions from the children. “Where does it grow? What does the tree look like?” Some children didn’t even know what an apple was. The absurdity of our context-less education system glared at our faces. We were teaching children who live in a deciduous forest of Andhra Pradesh to learn about a fruit that grows in the temperate forests miles away from them. Taking the cue, we modified our lesson and talked about A for Ant and went for an ant walk in their forest identifying different varieties of ants and visiting each anthill and the ecology behind it.

The experiences on top of the hill, in the Ramanavalsa forest with the children, opened my eyes to the influence of schooling on my food choices. I began asking myself how my own schooling affected my food perspectives and choices. That is when I realized that in my years of knowing an Apple, I had never seen an apple tree until I reached 26 years of life, on a visit to Uttarakhand, where I saw an apple tree for the very first time.

Our present modern education system, drafted during the times of Colonial era, still carries the hangover of colonisation. The colonial purpose behind the modern education system was to create a class of Indians who were Indian in color and appearance but English in taste and affiliation2. Homogenized curriculum, disconnected from the local realities, often pushes the child to aspire for something that is not available to them. For example, for most of my childhood I considered the Apple as the most valuable fruit on the planet. Whenever we would buy the expensive apple at home, we would savor it and consume it. Just because it was something I saw in my textbooks and knew it came from far away land, my taste pallet struggled to recognise the apple’s taste as it was schooled to me as the mightiest of the great apples. Especially since I lived in the land of yummy jackfruit, mangoes and bananas.

Breakfast, lunch & dinner

Bread slices with the hard edges removed, butter and mixed fruit jams is what comes to my mind when I think about food in my school. A lover of packed lunch boxes, I used to find it very difficult to wait till the lunch hour to eat my food. I remember feeling frustrated on occasions because I would feel hungry way before the lunch hour and I would have to wait… there were days when I would just quietly eat parts of my lunch from under the desk. The last decade for me has been about unlearning and living a self designed way of life. A self designed way of life pushes me to rethink and unlearn the many ideas I have picked up about different aspects of life such as mental health, interpersonal relationships, relationship with the larger systems like media, the state, etc.. This has also led me to re-look at my relationship with the food system. A recent visit to the doctor reminded me of the basic principle of “eat when you feel hungry” and this took me back to my times of eating school lunches at the wrong time.

As part of my self designed life, one aspect I had to unlearn was eating food 3 times a day. As I began working on decolonising my food choices one of the recurring themes was that of eating 2 meals a day, that is when I dug deeper into how my community elders would eat. From my childhood visits to my ancestral house reminded me how every day, early morning, the hearth is lit and a big vessel with water to make the rice porridge is kept. The porridge is slowly cooked over the morning as the busyness of the morning picks up. The cooked kanji is consumed along with a side dish usually made from the produce from the backyard (raw banana poriyal or green gram poriyal). The kanji is so filling that it takes care of hunger for the rest of the day. The evening meal is eaten during the time of the sunset. This meal would entail rice, curry and a side dish. The meal is eaten early and then there is enough time to digest before sleep.

The Industrial Revolution3 in the mid-19th Century regularized working hours, with labourers needing an early meal to sustain them at work. All classes started to eat a meal before going to work4. Similarly, the ritual of taking lunch became ingrained in the daily routine during the same time. As the workers would work long hours, they would carry lunch to work. This later evolved into canteens which was adopted by the schools as well post World war II. The practices of industrial revolution have impacted and altered the lives of the colonized societies till date. This culture of 3 meals a day, designed for workers who are part of a cog system working for long hours was adopted into the schooling system which was designed to manufacture workers for the future.

This adoption of meal timings disrupted the traditional practice where food was consumed just twice a day, with enough time given for the body and mind to digest and nourish. When asked, “how did schooling affect your life?”,  Rekha aptly replied, “my digestive system was disrupted.” She further added by saying how by reconnecting to the circadian rhythm and slowing down and finally listening to her body’s needs, she was able to re-align her body’s digestive functions.

Homogenised narratives

Us: So, what do you think your grandparents ate when they were children?
Child: “No akka (sister), our grandparents didn’t have any ‘thindi’(food) those days.”

Us: What do you mean they did not have any food? Did they starve?
Child: “No… my grandmother told me they used to eat tubers from the forest, meat and other forest produce”
Me: So, isn’t that food as well?
Child: “No! But they did not eat ‘annam’(rice) like we do!”
–A student during one of the conversations during project Rela.

During one of our sessions around food systems, we asked the children what their ancestors ate. The children promptly said in unison that their grandparents didn’t eat any food. When probed further, we realized that back then they did not grow rice as their staple food, which the children are forced to eat in the hostels without any scope for experiencing millets, tubers and whatever constituted their traditional food. So understandably, anything other than rice failed to qualify as “food”. This incident often takes me back to my own geography lessons where we would be asked to map the food grown in the geographical map of India. The food that qualified to be mapped would always be lentils like pigeon pea, green gram, chickpea and rice, wheat, sugar. The realization hit me how I was schooled into as a person who will contribute to the larger economy and hence programmed to see the world through the lens of economy. It was not just cash crops we mapped, we mapped the soil types that were suitable for these cash crops, the different resources like iron ore, copper ore that were geographically distributed, the different industries distributed across India to name a few examples.

Homogenized narratives much like the one we heard from the children from Gurukulam schools, points to the lopsidedness of the entire schooling system. The homogenized narratives of food such as “Everyone eats rice”, “Majority in India is vegetarian”, and “Common meal in India is dal and rice” often cause harm in constructing larger narratives around food which often affects individual “choices”. Homogenized narratives are for the purpose to fit us into the format of a fast paced urban lifestyle that is all about buying food from a supermarket, cooking it and gulping it down while sitting in front of a television. Schooling converts us into consumers who prefer not to bother about where the food comes from, who our food is connected to in the process of reaching the plate and even where our poop goes eventually.

Through our conversations with various indigenous communities of Andhra Pradesh, one common thread has been on how they do not grow their own traditional food anymore. In my experience I have observed that the communities that are more in tune with “development” and “modernity” are disconnecting more to their traditional food systems than the ones which still live as “primitive”. As part of one of the programmes by the government, the children from adivasi communities are put into hostel schools at an early stage of their childhood. These hostels are like the chicken coop that we see as part of the industrial farming system. All the children are expected to get up at the same time, wear the same clothes, speak the same mainstream language (either English or Telugu) and eat the same food. Due to various reasons (corruption, general mindset towards adivasi children) the children live in deplorable conditions. As part of the regimen, the food they eat often involves low quality rice and dal. Children are conditioned to think that rice is better than the millets or the forest produce they get at home. As these children are admitted into the hostel schools at an early childhood (as early as class/grade 3) they grow up unaware about the different cuisines that their culture cooks. When they go back home during vacations or after school, they constantly look for rice for which their taste buds have gotten accustomed to. Often when we ask the children about the food they eat at home, some of them have responded by saying, “Akka (sister), you won’t like what we cook. Your food is much better than ours.” For a short period as part of our work we spent some time in a remote village with the Konda Reddy community. We were excited to stay in the village and eat the food that the community ate. However, our host constantly apologized for feeding us the “low quality” food according to her, which included wild mushrooms, bamboo shoots, and forest tubers. It took us more than a month to make her understand that we prefer food that is organically and naturally produced than the chemically grown vegetables we get at the market.

With schooling, I was moved farther away from my traditional culinary heritage, and I aspired for a desk job which would make my life convenient. Decolonizing my food system by unschooling the notions of “the right food” has been an eye opening journey. My understanding of the commercialized education across the country largely remains as a means of earning “bread” for the people which makes a child going through the system to fall prey to this illusory hierarchy of putting mono-cultured food systems first.

1 Adivasi: (Hindi: “Original Inhabitants”) any of various ethnic groups considered to be the original inhabitants of the Indian subcontinent. 

2 NCERT Notes: Education System in India During British Rule. Accessed on November 30 2022.

3 Britain’s Industrial Revolution. Accessed on November 30 2022.

4 Denise Winterman, Breakfast, lunch and dinner: Have we always eaten them?. 2012. Accessed on 30 November 2022. <https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-20243692>

 Shruti Tharayil enjoys exploring lesser-known narratives about the intersectionalities around food and envisions creating a space for youth in South India to study food. She is the founder of the initiative Forgotten Greens focusing on the reawakening of the fast disappearing tradition of consuming uncultivated greens.

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