George Weld, chef/owner of the restaurants Parish Hall and egg in Williamsburg, wrote an awesome account of his trip to Ronnybrook farm in search of manure–yep, manure–last spring. Now he’s running the upcoming marathon to raise money for Wellness in the Schools (which we covered in our magazine here), a not-for-profit that, among other things, aims to improve school food. Read Weld’s account of learning to run the distance below (and if you’re so inspired, donate to his cause here).
In a couple of weeks, I’ll be herded into a corral on Staten Island to begin my first marathon. It’ll be my first competitive run at any distance, in fact. Before I started training for it I’d never run more than 7 miles, and then only because I couldn’t find my way out of Golden Gate Park.
But there hasn’t been much about marathon training that’s surprised me. Waking up in the dark with throbbing knees, grudgingly swinging your legs over the edge of the bed to meet the ground, reminding yourself against all evidence that once you start moving everything’s going to feel better—those are lessons I learned from cooking the line, from making hundreds of breakfasts day after day after day, month after month. The knowledge you need after 15 miles of running that though your body is beginning to rebel and shut down, if you just push it a little harder you’ll find reserves of energy and strength you didn’t know you had—that’s knowledge that any cook who’s worked a weekend double knows intimately.
Line cooking and distance running demand persistence, perseverance, endurance. You have to maintain form even after your body has given up. You have to push through exhaustion and pain without sacrificing precision: put your foot in the wrong place, or miss a stroke with your knife, and you could end up a lot worse than tired.
Don’t quit. Keep your spirits high. Don’t take shortcuts. If the day’s last customer is going to be as well-fed as the day’s first, those are the dicta you need to follow. If you’re going to make it through the last mile of a 20-mile run, those are the mantras you need to keep chanting. And if you’re going to reform school food in a system as byzantine and sclerotic as New York City’s, those are the principles you need to work by.
Wellness in the Schools knows that reforming school food—bringing whole foods into the cafeteria, making the best of School Foods’ procurement list, teaching school lunch cooks to take pride in what they do and inspire them with the knowledge that they have the power to make kids’ lives infinitely better—takes time, persistence, endurance, and patience. They know that kids need repeated exposure to healthy options to adopt them—that it takes more than a few optimistic gestures to get kids eating well—that they’ll need 10 or 12 chances to push away that pile of broccoli rabe before they learn to love it. They know that change comes from committed effort, which is why they install trained chefs in the schools they work with, so that the school’s cooks have one person for an entire year to use as a resource. It’s why they partner with restaurants like ours for a year-long engagement—providing cooking demonstrations, helping develop recipes, and getting kids excited about cooking and eating well.
Fixing school food, improving the health and changing the attitudes of students and schools administrators and lunchroom cooks—those are long-term goals that take marathon-scale endurance. It’s a struggle that faces inertia and outright rejection at every step, and it takes the vision and determination of people like Bill Telepan & Nancy Easton—the grit and perseverance of cooks and distance runners—to make it happen.