Students at Castilleja School kicked off the New Year with a week-long study of food and its mind-boggling variety around the world.
With first-semester finals behind them and the entire junior class off to China, Castilleja observes "Global Week" at the start of each January — a school-wide focus on a single topic meant to engage and educate.
For freshman Monica Taneja, this year's pick of "Food Justice and Sustainability" was one of the best ever.
"This is my fourth global week, and the theme of food is something we can really connect with," Taneja said.
"It shows us how we can change our own lives, help ourselves in our own environment, locally growing our own gardens, recycling, not using plastic bags."
Students heard from wife-husband team Faith D'Aluisio and Peter Menzel, who photographed and interviewed families in their kitchens in 80 countries to produce the coffee-table book, "Hungry Planet: What the World Eats."
They questioned Colorado filmmakers Suzan Beraza and Jeb Berrier, who set out to make a short film about plastic bags — and two years later released "Bag It," an exploration of the cost of disposable plastic products to human health and the environment. The award-winning documentary will be aired on PBS next year.
After showing the film, Berrier took to the Castilleja stage in a body suit made from 500 plastic bags — the number the average American uses in a year, he said.
"Is your life a little too plastic?" he asked the girls, to laughter.
Beraza said her goal in making the film was to "inspire people enough that they actually do something.
"I don't want you to feel helpless and hopeless at the end, but to feel like you can do something in your school and in your community."
Citing author Annie Leonard, Beraza said Americans "have really developed the consumer side of our brain — how to find the best deal on shoes, etc. — but the whole citizen side of our brain has really atrophied."
Students asked Beraza how she had smuggled her camera into a squalid Chinese facility in which laborers were picking through bales of American trash to salvage anything of value.
The answer: She hadn't. The footage was purchased from a Mandarin-speaking Australian journalist who had sneaked into the waste facility.
"They (Chinese authorities) have become hyper-aware of journalists. It's really hard to get in and now it would be almost impossible to get that footage," Beraza said.
Asked what students can do to make a difference, Beraza advised girls to decide on something they care about — excess packaging, or phthalates in shampoo, for example — and begin a campaign.
"You can form a group that shares your passion and make a Facebook page, start writing letters (to companies), calling and keep pestering. Sometimes you feel like your voice isn't being heard, but it does make a difference," she said.
Before the December holidays, Castilleja students amassed a collection of more than 1,000 processed-food packaging — cereal boxes, pasta containers and the like.
This week, the colorful cardboard and plastic items were recycled into a variety of art projects, culminating in a school-wide display today in the school dining room.
"It's been interesting to spend all week focusing on one particular subject," freshman Rebekah Kirkwood said.
"This is my first Global Week. I've learned so much about fast food, and how locally grown food is so much better for us and for the environment because it doesn't have to be put on a truck.
"Before, when I thought about things that were bad for the environment, I thought of trucks and cars, but not about food."
Head of School Nanci Kauffman said Global Week has been an effort, since its beginning in 2006, to offer "problem-based, interdisciplinary educational experiences that are relevant to girls' lives and to the real world.
"My mailbox and inbox are already full of messages from students inspired by Global Week to take action here on campus, in our local community and around the world," she said Thursday.