Thou Shalt Not Spork!

Thou Shalt Not Spork!

by Karen Brown

karen brown - thou shalt not spork

A standout for me at last year’s Bioneers Conference was a panel featuring Michael Pollan and some young students who are working to improve food in their local schools, including Kids Rethink New Orleans Schools <> Here’s how they describe themselves:

We are a group of students in New Orleans who want to rethink and rebuild our schools after Hurricane Katrina.… In mid-2006, [a group of community organizers, artists, architects, media experts and educators] brought twenty middle school students (us) together for our first summer school. Every kid was recovering from a hard year that included Hurricane Katrina, losing our houses, leaving the city, and going to new schools away from home. The time away (six months for some of us, a year for others) was scary but eye-opening. For the first time most of us saw school bathrooms with toilet paper and soap; libraries with books and hallways with lockers. It made us realize what good schools actually look like. We just started rethinking schools back here in New Orleans.

Part of their rethinking took form in 2008, when students worked with chefs, farmers, architects, artists, and the New Orleans Food and Farm network to draft Twelve Recommendations for Public School Cafeterias. <recommendations-2008.pdf> It would be difficult to find a better example of proposed school lunch reform anywhere, although their first recommendation may come as a surprise: 

We value our dignity and our health: No more sporks!

In case you don’t know, a spork is a 19th-century cutlery design that combines a spoon and a fork into a single eating utensil. Critics of the spork complain that it doesn’t function well as a fork because its tines are too short to pierce and hold food, and it fails as a spoon because its bowl is too shallow and leaky to hold liquids. Seen as an economical and efficient option for prisoners and combat personnel (and cute hungry school children?), the spork later found its way into fast food establishments. There is even a restaurant in San Francisco called Spork <>, its name inspired by the previous tenant, a Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise.

At Bioneers, the Rethinkers' description of their attempts to eat gumbo with the feeble spork was both poignant and hilarious. The spork’s failure to fulfill its most basic function – getting food into their mouths – affronted their dignity and earned it a place at the top of their list of recommended reforms.

I called Jane Wholey, a Rethink founder, who told me the Recovery School District, responsible for about 50 percent of New Orleans's public schools, was very supportive of the students' recommendations and agreed to adopt 11 out of the 12. Which recommendation didn’t pass? The students' request to get rid of Styrofoam lunch trays. Jane explained that Styrofoam trays are used because many school kitchens were destroyed by Katrina, and few of the newly operational school kitchens meet code or have dishwashers. There is simply no way at the moment to wash reusable trays. Students are pressing for a biodegradable alternative, and request a move to reusable trays when dishwashers are available.

And what became of the spork? "One piece of very good news is that [food service provider] Sodexo is anxious to please," said Wholey. "On their own they stopped buying sporks." Sodexo now provides knives, forks, and spoons made of plastic. “On the dignity issue, we won. The ecological issue is our next horizon," said Wholey.

See the Rethinkers in action:

What would Socrates do?

Inquiry for the classroom using Socratic dialogues

  • Kids Rethink New Orleans Schools places a very high value on personal dignity. Their central question was this: What would a school look like that truly respects its students? How would you define dignity? In what circumstances do you find your dignity to be challenged?  When and why do you sometimes accept feelings of indignation and at other times protest like the Rethink kids did?  
  • The spork was designed to be very efficient because it combines the functions of a spoon and a fork in one utensil, thereby saving on materials, clean-up, and disposal. Some people think the spork is not very usable, however, because it doesn’t work as well as a spoon and fork used separately. What do you think? Which do you think is more important: usability or efficiency? Can you imagine or find in the real world examples of designs that meet usability and efficiency goals equally well?




4 comments posted

New Orleans Public Schools

Submitted by Dan Driscoll (not verified) on Fri, 2010-02-12 11:13.

The chapter in Naomi Klein's "The Shock Doctrine" that concerns the effort by the corporate/govt complex to leverage the chaos surrounding Katrina to castrate the New Orleans public school system is worth checking out. The whole book is compelling, though much of it is broad historical polemic and feels at times like oversimplification (even if its not). But on recent or ongoing events like Katrina, Iraq, Palestine, the Pacific Tsunami, and how such events are exploited to advance privatization and corporatism without regard for the human cost of doing so, her approach is more constrained and specific, her facts are fresher, and especially, her observations are more relevant to the world we live in right now (i.e., the right kinds of feedback might possibly have some actual effect) and so, more impactful.


Submitted by Evelyn (not verified) on Fri, 2010-02-12 07:27.

I was shocked to hear of the pre-Katrina destitute state of the schools in this blogpost. It's inconceivable that there can be such an incredible disparity between resources in different geographical and social regions.

I am heartened to hear of this group of kid's work to affect their own environment positively, and pleased that the Recovery School district had the spine and sense to agree to 11 out of their 12 recommendations.

Thanks for a really good, informative blogpost!

The role of dignity

Submitted by karen on Fri, 2010-02-12 11:29.

Thank you, Evelyn. One of the most compelling aspects of the Rethink story is the role of dignity at the center of the students' endeavors. After Katrina and the devastation of their local environment, the adults who supported the Rethinkers help take them to a place where they were invincible -- inside, to their core values -- where their innate dignity held fast. I am so impressed by the democratic, peaceful, and environmentally sound practices that these students have developed again and again, using dignity as an organizing principle for their efforts. Their Twelve Recommendations for Public School Cafeterias <recommendations-2008.pdf> is one the best and most ecologically informed documents of its kind that we have seen, and especially impressive given that it was developed by students. And they got there through a collaborative group process that sought to identify what most supported the dignity of their schools and broader community. Quite innovative, quite inspiring.

To spork or not to spork...

Submitted by Peter (not verified) on Thu, 2010-02-11 13:49.

That is the question! Ms. Brown's common sense and clear thinking bring the issue into focus: if fulfilling human (rather than institutional) needs is the goal, usability and efficiency cannot be odds with each other. Thank you.

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