Surgeon General Swings by Edible Schoolyard

by Sarah Henry on March 17, 2011 · 26 comments

in berkeley bites,food events,school food

Surgeon General Vice Admiral Regina Benjamin and students at the Edible Schoolyard. Photo: Tracey Taylor.

Does the name Regina Benjamin ring any bells? She’s the nation’s top doc who flys under the radar in the way that previous U.S. surgeon generals have not. (C. Everett Koop and Joycelyn Elders come immediately to mind).

I had the opportunity to see the good doctor in action today at a photo op at the Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley, where she was greeted by Alice Waters, a gaggle of excited kids, and the garden’s resident chickens.

What impressed me about Vice Admiral Benjamin was how much she wanted to interact with the kids, taking time to talk with them in the garden’s hay bale ramada and in the kitchen, where she was interviewed by two junior journalists for the student newspaper.

As the country’s chief health educator, Dr. Benjamin has made preventing obesity, an epidemic in America, a cornerstone of her vision for a healthier nation. She brings to the job professional and personal experience. She founded a health clinic in Bayou La Batre, a rural Alabama shrimping community, ministering to the health needs of the poor. Talk about a commitment to community service and public health: Her clinic was wiped out by Hurricane Georges in 1998 and Katrina in 2005. Undeterred, the center was rebuilt in short order.

The day before the newly rebuilt clinic was about to open in 2006, it was burned down in a fire. Dr. Benjamin rebuilt again, each time mortgaging her home and picking up shifts in emergency rooms and nursing homes to earn extra money to keep the clinic running, according to a recent Los Angeles Times profile.

She lost her only sibling to AIDS. Her mother died of lung cancer and her father from complications from diabetes and high blood pressure. All preventable diseases, notes the MacArthur award winner. She garnered some criticism during the nomination process for her current job because of her weight. She told the New York Times Magazine: “My thought is that people should be healthy and be fit at whatever size they are.”

Surgeon General Regina Benjamin and Alice Waters at the Edible Schoolyard garden; student Billy Augustine with chicken. Photos: Tracey Tayor. Dr. Benjamin talks cooking with Edible's kitchen teacher Esther Cook and she sits for an interview with 8th grader Maya Wong. Photos: Sarah Henry.

Dr. Benjamin spoke at UC Berkeley before being shepherded to the Edible Schoolyard by Dr. Pamela Peeke, the chief medical correspondent for Discovery Health TV. She was welcomed by the mayor, school officials, and food advocate Joy Moore who quipped, “They invited me so you’d feel comfortable,” a reference to the fact that she was the only other brown-skinned adult in the assembled crowd.

The M.D. told King Middle School 8th graders Emily Wert and Maya Wong that she was excited to come to Edible to see the school’s acclaimed cooking and gardening program in action because creating healthy school environments is a key point outlined in her plan for a healthy nation.

That’s the kind of doctor’s orders on which we can all agree.

You might also like:

Alice Waters’ 40 Year Campaign for Good Food
Joy Moore: Community Food Reformer
New School Food Study: Victory for Alice Waters
Cultivating Controversy: In Defense of an Edible Education
Berkeley’s School Lunch Makes its Big Screen Debut

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{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

Melanie Haiken March 17, 2011 at 7:29 pm

So great to see the Edible Schoolyard get so much exposure and continue to raise the profile of the healthy school food issue. Also nice to see our nation’s medical leader make obesity, diabetes and healthy eating a national priority.


Sarah Henry March 17, 2011 at 11:11 pm

Another thing I like about the nation’s medical leader? Dancing is her exercise of choice and she has said that activity “is medicine. It’s better than most pills.”


Melanie @ Frugal Kiwi March 18, 2011 at 10:23 am

I love her comment about being healthy and fit at whatever size they are. No reason to assume that people are couch potatoes and never move just because they aren’t a size 10 or that they are healthy and active at size 4. Those assumptions are often wrong.
Melanie @ Frugal Kiwi´s last [type] ..Sterling Earrings Giveaway by Silverworks


Alisa Bowman March 18, 2011 at 10:37 am

She really does fly under the radar, huh? But there’s a lot to like about that woman.
Alisa Bowman´s last [type] ..Group therapy- How to tell if it’s worth it


Sarah Henry March 18, 2011 at 10:40 am

Agreed. I don’t think she has time to blow her own horn — but look what she’s accomplished, quietly, in the trenches.


Jennifer Margulis March 18, 2011 at 10:49 am

So exciting to see her visiting a viable project that is using concrete methods to make kids healthier (in the meantime at my son’s school the DOCTOR mom of one of his classmates brought in a “snack” that was laden with corn syrup, sugar, and dye. And we wonder why hyperactivity and diabetes are on the rise?!)


Sarah Henry March 18, 2011 at 11:09 am

Yowzer, what kind of doc is this parent? School snack is the bane of many teachers and parents existence — I’ve seen bags of absolute crap come to school in the name of nourishing our kids.


Alexandra March 18, 2011 at 12:27 pm

I’m glad to read that the Surgeon General actually goes out in the field like this.
Alexandra´s last [type] ..Whats Up on Main Street


Sarah Henry March 18, 2011 at 12:59 pm

She strikes me as a doer, Sandy, not a paper pusher.


Jane Boursaw March 18, 2011 at 4:39 pm

Very cool, and hopefully, her visit will bring some attention to a great program and inspire other schools and communities to follow suit.
Jane Boursaw´s last [type] ..Twelve Cool St Patrick’s Day Movies


Sarah Henry March 19, 2011 at 2:13 pm

I’m encouraged, Jane, by just how much interest there is in cooking, gardening, and food-focused curriculum at many schools around the country. The Edible Schoolyard is just one example, albeit a very visible and high-profile one, of how that can look.


merr March 19, 2011 at 6:11 am

Wonderful – I love the focus on the process of growing and sustainability, and am really glad to see officials taking the time to view the progress first hand. I think these “micro” visits can have “macro” effects.


Sarah Henry March 19, 2011 at 2:15 pm

I think that is the intention behind such visits, Merr, to bring attention to programs that can be replicated (or reimagined) elsewhere.


MyKidsEatSquid March 19, 2011 at 6:21 am

I’m so glad to read this, I hadn’t heard anything about her since the whole buzz around her nomination. Good to hear that she’s reaching out to communities and school children.


Sarah Henry March 19, 2011 at 2:17 pm

Improving the health of school environments, which dovetails with the First Lady’s mission, is high on the Surgeon General’s to-do list.


Casey@Good. Food. Stories. March 19, 2011 at 9:15 am

That NYT Mag article totally made me fall in love with Benjamin – she’s fun, pragmatic, and determined. What a relatable inspiration!
Casey@Good. Food. Stories.´s last [type] ..The Telltale Hamantaschen


Sarah Henry March 19, 2011 at 2:18 pm

I liked Deborah Solomon’s Q&A with the Surgeon General too, Casey. Her can-do, practical spirit came through loud and clear.


Chia March 19, 2011 at 9:51 am

Did Dr Benjamin offer any ideas for funding nourishment of our collective children? That seems to be a critical component here.


Sarah Henry March 19, 2011 at 2:20 pm

Hi Chia, thanks for chiming in with a worthy question. No talk of the nitty gritty financial details on the day — to be fair, it wasn’t that kind of event — but it certainly should be raised.


Susan March 20, 2011 at 5:42 pm

Wow! How cool that you were able to see the Surgeon General in person.


Sarah Henry March 22, 2011 at 10:27 pm

She’s pretty down to earth, Susan, happy to report back from the field that there were no airs and graces, a “real” person, as people like to say.


Sheryl March 21, 2011 at 9:55 am

What a special woman! The kids are lucky to have had a visit from her. I truly hope her message spreads throughout the country.


Sarah Henry March 22, 2011 at 10:29 pm

It’s encouraging what’s happening in terms of school food. Even Mark Bittman said as much today:


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