I completed a BA in International Relations from Ritsumeikan University, Kyoto, Japan in 2006. During these undergraduate years, I was exposed to a variety of global issues such as cultural and racial discrimination, human rights, gender issues and environmental issues through studying international politics and law. I found myself becoming increasingly interested in environmental issues as I became aware of the impact we are having on our natural environment and other living beings as a direct result of our lifestyle choices and also how environmental issues are deeply connected to our political and economical interests.
A growing sense of the social and environmental injustices inherent in our societies led me to join an international student NGO, ISEAC, based at Kyoto University. There, I worked as an environmental project team member for about a year, organizing both symposiums by inviting environmental activists and workshops by carrying out environmental simulation games for other university students. Although I was very engaged in ISEAC's activities, I still wanted to do something more practical on our own university campus. With the confidence gained about operating projects from my experience with ISEAC, I decided to start student group called 'Eco-Friends' with some of my classmates who shared similar environmental concerns. With a student body of 15,000 students who were already so busy and had a very little space to do anything 'extra' and also a school administration office that had a very conservative attitude toward our activities, many of our projects could not be carried out or moved very slowly. Although the results were less that what we had aimed for, we were able to make some change in our cafeteria's disposable material use by suggesting alternatives and slowly exploring their viability together with the cooperation of the cafeteria manager. We were also able to initiate and plan a systematic separation of garbage at the school festival, the largest in the entire Kansai area of Japan, all carried out by student volunteers. This has led to the mandatory use of washable dishes and chopsticks in recent years and has resulted in a huge decrease in the amount of waste produced during this three-day festival. As 'Eco-Friends' coordinator I especially learnt about how important it is to first understand the system that is in place before judging its deficiencies, (in our case, how the school administration, cafeteria and student committee operated) and to find a way to approach the issue to reach a point where all of the parties concerned can find a common ground. As a group leader, I also learned the vital importance of mutual encouragement and inspiration with others who share the same awareness and vision for change in often disappointing, frustrating and lonely situations.
During my freshmen year, I attended a documentary film about factory farming showing at one of the few vegetarian restaurants in Kyoto. Vegetarianism is still not common in Japan and I really did not know much about it except through a friend who was the only vegetarian at the school I attended in Australia for a year as a high school exchange student. This documentary had a very strong impact on me and as a result I became a vegetarian. I was amazed that I had never been told about the cruelties of factory farming and could not believe how few people were even aware of it. This experience led me to become aware of the lack of information that is made readily available about what we eat and the lack of knowledge amongst Japanese people in general about the sources of their food. Thus began my interest in food-related issues; not only in how our diet directly affects our body and mind but also in its impact on the environment and the mental and physical health of those who produce it. Even though there is a movement amongst a small minority for buying more organic food in Japan, it is still often looked on as something that is only done by 'health maniac' people. As a result, I decided to write my graduation thesis on a theme that would allow me to explore and bring together all of my interests, and thus decided to write about the 'sustainable school meal'; how it could help students to develop healthy eating habits, how it could be used as a tool for food education and how it could have positive impact on the environment and the local economy. I used the program carried out by Jeremy Oliver in the U.K. along with some other healthy food programs carried out in various British and US schools as case studies, comparing them with the present situation in the Japanese school system and suggesting how it could implement some of the British and American findings. The highlight of this thesis was my discovery of a number of scientific studies that have shown a direct connection between students' diets and their behavior and academic results and that noticeable improvements in both have become evident after implementing a locally grown, organic food program in schools with students growing, preparing and serving their own school meals.
I have been attempting to integrate my thesis findings into the school curriculum since moving to Sahyadri School in India in October 2006. The school already follows a vegetarian diet but the students are being increasingly exposed to a fast food, snack and meat-based diet during their school holidays as many hail from Mumbai and other urban centres where the traditional Indian diet is being rejected in preference for Westernized eating habits. I have been trying to share my concern about food; how what we choose to eat could benefit our health and the environment and improve the local economy and animal welfare predominantly through the dining hall notice board with displays on factory farming, food miles, ice cream, burgers, a vegetarian food pyramid and the nutritional content of various foods, amongst others. I also initiated an on-going cooking class once a week with the help of dining hall manager so that students could have more exposure to food preparation that is especially popular amongst 4th to 7th grade. Also, as part of a Life Skills programme for the 7th grade, I was an anchor for the organic gardening as well as the cooking sections. With the help of our local farmers and our vermi-compost we were able to sow seeds of several kinds of vegetables in rock-hard dry soil and could harvest many of them after a few weeks. Working with students outside the classroom has been a very interesting experience. Some students were so eager and would keep coming back to see if their seeds have sprouted, while some less interested students tried to refrain from hard work and one of the students proudly came to me after making organic neem pesticide I also joined the dining hall committee and am trying to improve the food standards as well as the dining hall environment along with other teachers. I initiated holding silent meals twice a week, a programme that has been evolving in a most efficient way with the help of the students.
My aim for this coming term is to continue encouraging the dining hall to use more locally grown vegetables and also to have some of our rice and wheat supplied by local farmers. I have discovered a group of farmers who grow organic rice not far from the campus through NavDanya (Vandana Shiva's organization) but I have yet to coordinate this option with the school administrator in regards to cost and transportation. Finally, I would like to keep initiating and pursuing a way to have our local farmers supply the school with organic vegetables with the cooperation of school administrator and dining hall manager.
Beside the various activities mentioned above, I was also given an opportunity to anchor the newly created pre-school last term and am teaching two periods daily, five times a week. From this term, I have a great opportunity to teach environmental science to 4th grade. I am very thrilled to have such a precious opportunity and intend to use my experiences and commitment to educating the next generation about the importance of our environment to the best of my abilities.
During the recent school holiday, I had the opportunity to attend a seminar at the Center for Ecoliteracy, which was founded by Fritjof Capra, Peter Buckley and Zenobia Barlow in 1995 in Berkeley, California. This has further inspired my interests in being a part of the 'Rethinking School Lunch' project that applies a systems approach to connecting classroom studies with experiences in sustainable farming, food and environmental education and healthy eating through gardening classes and having school meals that use locally grown organic food. This was truly a wonderful and fruitful experience as I have been constantly inspired by CEL's holistic as well as practical approach in each school and school district since I learnt of their existence while writing my thesis over two years ago. Attending this seminar and meeting people from many different professional areas such as educators, food coordinators at school cafeterias, dieticians, chefs, parents, a member of a district committee and the staff of CEL who are all devoted to the project, made it clear that I want to pursue a profession that will bring together my food, environmental education and sustainable agriculture concerns. As a result, I am currently engaged in researching a university or distant learning course that will enable me to deepen my understanding in these areas.