Using Culture to connect kids to healthy food
Celebrating Traditions:  Using Culture to Connect Kids to Healthy Food

Celebrating Traditions: Using Culture to Connect Kids to Healthy Food

When my students and I visited the garden for the first time, we toured the space to identify what was growing and where. “Does anyone know what kind of vegetable this is?” I asked. I got some glazed over looks; kale isn’t stocked at local markets and it’s unlikely these 2nd grade students had ever seen it before, let alone eaten it. “OK, what about these over here?” I asked, pointing to a plant behind the group. A few surprisingly eager hands rose, “Those are eggplants. My grandmother grows them in our garden at home!” I noticed a trend in the hands that were raised; all were students who were new Americans, or had family that came from Cambodia and Vietnam. “And these, right next to the eggplant?” I asked. A different set of eager hands raised, saying “Those are chili peppers! My mom cooks with those a lot.” This time the hands belonged to students who either were from or had cultural roots in the Dominican Republic or Guatemala.

The farm to school movement is strong, and growing every day. Figures like Michelle Obama and Michael Pollan are encouraging educators to influence young palates while they are malleable and new. However, nutrition teachers, school garden instructors, and public advocates are sometimes guilty of focusing on a very “American” way of approaching what foods to grow and eat. This notion of “American” is not only not inclusive enough, it’s not even factually correct. The United States includes an increasingly growing population of new Americans from all corners of the globe, and the students we teach come with a broad array of experiences and traditions that must be incorporated into our farm to school programming if we are to succeed in helping kids get excited about healthy food.

I learned this firsthand through serving with FoodCorps for a year in Lynn, MA, a post-industrial town with vibrant sub-cultures of new Americans. As someone from outside the community, I needed to take time to learn and listen. In order to get my students excited about fresh fruits and vegetables, I needed to tone down the talk of kale smoothies and turn up the conversations about ways to spice up Dominican beans and rice. I needed to grow yard-long noodle beans native to Southeast Asia and grown in home gardens all over Lynn.

FoodCorps service sites across the country use the cultural and local knowledge of their communities to achieve their goal of connecting kids to good food while also celebrating their local foodways and cultural traditions.

In Lewiston, ME, at St. Mary’s Nutrition Center’s Lots to Gardens program, Nick Geer serves in a French-Canadian community that has, in the last 15 years, become home to new Americans and refugees from Somalia, Congo, Angola and Ethiopia, among other nationalities. Working with a diverse mix of students in his school gardens, Nick sees celebrating and preserving traditional foodways as essential to “make community-sized (as well as systematic) change. In order to preserve these beautiful cultures, and their food traditions, they must be shared.” At one of his afterschool cooking club meetings this past winter, he made malawah with his students, a semi-sweet Somali pancake that is similar to a traditional French-Canadian buckwheat ploye. He wanted to demonstrate to his students how they could learn about one another’s cultures by (healthfully) tweaking a traditional recipe that is familiar to all of them, regardless of background. He shared, A boy whose mother makes malawah at home for special occasions exclaimed, “This is better than my mom’s malawah! I’ll have to give her your recipe.”  Another fourth grader, who is accustomed to the buckwheat ployes said, “Yeah, I think I’ll take that recipe, too.”

In Arizona, Rebecca Cohen and Julia Munson serve with Tohono O’odham Community Action (TOCA) on the Tohono O’odham Nation. Per the mission of TOCA, Rebecca and Julia focus much of their school garden curriculum around traditional and wild-foraged plants and food traditions, getting kids excited about foods like ciolim (cholla cactus bud) and bahidaj (saguaro cactus fruit.) “Having the cultural component—teaching children about foods that are meaningful on so many levels beyond nutrition and physical health—gets students to see the bigger picture about how their food choices relate to every other part of their lives, and makes it so much more relevant to them,” says Rebecca. Also in Arizona, service member Darlene Beach teaches her students methods of growing and preparing foods traditional to her White Mountain Apache community: squash salad, beans, elk jerky, and a cultured corn beverage connecting to the story of the Three Sisters (squash, corn and beans). Darlene feels an obligation to pass on to the current generation the lessons she learned from her mother and grandmother.

The universality of food has beauty in the way it can connect us all. In my role as an educator, it’s imperative to me that kids see their experiences as valued and honored and be taught that healthy food and their own food traditions can be one in the same.

by Alex Freedman.

Annie’s + FoodCorps

FoodCorps is a nationwide team of passionate leaders who work to connect kids to real food. As a “Seed Funder,” Annie’s is enabling FoodCorps Fellows to support, guide, and mentor service members who then go out to teach kids about what healthy food is and where it comes from, build and tend school gardens, and bring high-quality local food into public school cafeterias.