The Case For Food Literacy

Oct 25th, 2012 | By | Category: Archives, BLTN Teachers, EBD, EBR, Fall-Winter 2012

—by Brent Peters, funded by the C. E. and S. Foundation.

Before becoming an English teacher and Bread Loaf student, Brent Peters worked as a chef at the Mayan Café in Louisville, Kentucky. Joe Franzen has been an urban gardener, sustainability enthusiast, environmental educator, and kitchen magician for years. He has turned Fern Creek Traditional High School into an “edible campus.”

In Room 209 at Fern Creek Traditional High School, three walls are brick, and one wall is full of windows and a view of the courtyard where students eat lunch. Lunches burst with conversation and swirls of activity that move inside and around the classroom. Students are tempted to turn in their chairs and peek out on friends. I am tempted too. A very durable plant also bends toward the window, in spite of my attempts to rotate it regularly. I understand that the view outside, the natural light, and the sounds from the courtyard signal the world going on around us, and the turn of students toward the light encapsulates a simple principle of growth: plants, students, and teachers grow toward the light, and whether light is knowledge, nourishment, or illumination, all interpretations are resonant. Classroom instruction should allow students and teachers to interact with the world and grow toward the light.

A friend and co-teacher, Mr. Joe Franzen, and I had an idea for an English class called Food Lit that would be loud with participatory voices and possibilities to make connections to the world. The class is a junior English course aligned with the same Common Core and College and Career Readiness Standards as other junior English classes, but food is the theme.

Last year, we approached our principal, Dr. Houston Barber, and our forward-thinking administration at Fern Creek High School in Louisville, Kentucky, with the idea for the class. They granted us one Food Lit class for one trimester to see if students, many of whom were already struggling in their English classes, could identify with a food theme and show academic growth. Fortunately for us, students who stayed after school to work in the garden, cook, share, enjoy a meal, laugh, talk, think, and debate food-related issues in Mr. Franzen’s Cooking and Environmental Clubs were already making the case.

We knew that students were interested in food. We did not foresee the immense potential the class would have to bring down walls: walls between school and home, school and community, between academic disciplines, and between students and their social classes. When our class went to the school garden, we naturally started talking about botany and agriculture. Seamlessly, the conversation moved to include chemistry, history, mathematics, global issues, social justice, language, geography, and nutrition. We also noticed that students who were not talking in class became very vocal outside the classroom, and students who may not have talked to each other in class were laughing together as they were planting rye as a cover crop or picking cabbage worms off winter cabbages.

Everyone has a food story. We started this year’s class by creating a personal food map. When we put ourselves next to “food,” a flood of memories, associations, connections, and food favorites start to surface. We begin to think of all the people, places, and emotions that are attached to food. The food maps invite a pedagogy of sharing and listening. They also uncover specifics like Dad’s Peanut Butter Hershey Kiss Cookies and realizations like Food is the one thing that helps me store family traditions. The food maps fill pages: class starts from a place of strength because students know their food story is personal, valuable, and unique. The sometimes hesitant students learning English as a second or third language are encouraged to connect to home and homeland, and their not-so-often-talked-about experiences become visible. Knowledge moves around the class like it moves around the tables in the courtyard at lunch. Students are excited to share.

Food Lit challenges what can “count” as text. After having the opportunity to take two of Dr. David Kirkland’s classes at Bread Loaf that focused on expanding literacies, I see that we live in a world where we are bombarded by messages which are in many ways in conversation with each other. We read these messages, but do we think about them critically, and what is the cost of not considering them seriously? In Food Lit, we start each unit with a big question like What is good food? Is sugar bad food? or Is school lunch saving our generation? We read articles, interviews, stories, editorials, and blogs, but we read many other food texts which allow our experiences and food choices outside of the classroom to become part of the discourse. Our investigation also leads us out of the classroom. To answer what is good food, we read our weekend meals, our class meal, recipes, our school garden, and our visits to local family and organic farms. To determine if sugar is bad food, we read the grocery store, cereal boxes, candy, energy bars, and sodas. With each, we measure the amount of sugar per serving and to see how much actual sugar we are saying yes to when we choose a snack. In our school lunch investigation, we read our lunch tables, interviews of students during lunch, pictures of our lunches for a week, pictures of school lunches around the world, and interviews with our school cafeteria workers. When we move to the writing process, students have a depth of knowledge that links to authentic experiences and opposing viewpoints on issues. Students stand for a certain point of view by standing in various physical spaces to form an answer to these loaded questions.

The class propels students to become advocates for food literacy and to speak to ways that the course is allowing them to make connections that go beyond the classroom walls. They are discovering a voice that is attached to action. Recently students have presented at KCTE Conference in Lexington, Kentucky; the Healthy Foods, Local Farms Conference in Louisville, Kentucky; and at the Watson Conference of Rhetoric at the University of Louisville.

At a recent conference, a participant was listening to our students speak about their findings in the school lunch room. A student, Irvin, spoke of a real lack of choice in school lunch offerings. He said that by fourth lunch students are left with few choices. Students at his table, some who do not eat pork because of religious reasons, choose not to eat at all because the selections that are left are only pork offerings. Irvin contrasted his experience in the lunchroom with a recent class meal that Food Lit students shared.

Irvin described the steaming heap of tortillas served with rice, beans, grilled vegetables, roasted corn, butternut squash puree (sweet and savory versions), pico de gallo, pickled red onions, marinated chilies, and herbed sour cream. Irvin boasted that all of the vegetables came from our school garden. He added that he had more energy at soccer practice than he normally has after eating school lunch. Irvin went on to explain that none of the vegetables that are picked by students in the garden can go to the school cafeteria and that a lot of students take the fresh fruit offerings in the lunch room (e.g., an apple, sliced canned peaches) and throw them directly in the compost bin. The participant looked at Irvin and the students around him and said, “You all have enormous networks; you all could be the voices that cause a tremendous sway for your friends. Your voices could cause a shift. Do you realize how much power you have?”

What if teachers approached instruction with this question in mind? What power do we all have, and what changes can we make as a result of that power? These questions have been at the heart of our Food Lit class at Fern Creek Traditional High School. What happens when students know that there are better food choices because students know how to make the better choice from the ground up? The Food Lit curriculum invites students and teachers to feed not just our intellectual, emotional, and physical hunger, but also to feed the desire to become the type of critical thinkers who realize that they can do something to shed the light that nourishes a generation.

3 Comments to “The Case For Food Literacy”

  1. David Wandera says:

    Brent’s article here reminds me of an article which I read in Mahiri (2006) where Tony Mirabeli has written a chapter entitled “learning to serve: the language and literacy of food service workers”. Tony’s study focuses on the kinds of abilities it takes to be a waiter/waitress, and extends further the “food literacy” conversation that Brent is engaging with here. This conversation rests on the premise that any kind of literacy (especially food literacy….given how there are different conversations and obviously different tastes out there) is embedded in social practice. In Brent’s class community, to be literate means to have a sense of how ways of using language, ways of
    thinking and acting are intertwined with the everyday…instantiated by food and the
    events that build up the processes of food preparation and what food does for

    So Brent’s piece here pursues the new literacies studies orientation, and through collaborating with his students, he implies that literacy can be extended beyond individual experiences of reading and writing, and that we have to consider different ways of communication and the different contexts for different groups, for instance
    a language arts classroom that is intent and interested in food literacy. Thank
    you Brent and your students for showing us one more example that literacy is
    more than just the printed text and that it involves other modes of
    communication. So in Tony Mirabeli’s chapter, he says on Mahiri’s (2006) page 146-7 that “the restaurant menu is a genre unto itself…the menu at Lou’s contains ninety main course items as well as well as soups, salads, appetizers, and side dishes…to be literate here requires something other than ninth-grade level of literacy. More than just a factual, or literal interpretation of the words on the page, it requires
    knowledge of specific practices—such as methods of food preparation—that take
    place in a particular restaurant.”

    Brent and his students are certainly not taking the easy way out…as seen in how they had to read, discuss, interrogate etc. This rigour is captured in a lot of what Brent says but I highlight one section from his article here to illustrate:

    “To determine if sugar is bad food, we read the grocery
    store, cereal boxes, candy, energy bars, and sodas. With each, we measure
    the amount of sugar per serving and to see how much actual sugar we are saying
    yes to when we choose a snack. In our school lunch investigation, we read
    our lunch tables, interviews of students during lunch, pictures of our lunches
    for a week, pictures of school lunches around the world, and interviews with
    our school cafeteria workers.”

    The meanings of what good food is, and how to understand nutrition, etc. are continually reconstructed as Brent and his colleagues and students interact.
    There are various sources of texts and we see what S. B. Heath has called “literacy
    events” (in this case) around food. We need a lot more anecdotal testimonies
    like Brent’s, and further systematic research that illuminates on the interactive
    service in the making of, and consumption of food, to take us beyond the popular
    rhetoric which plays out as if what goes on in the classroom has to be disconnected from “the real world”.

    David Wandera
    (The Ohio State University)

  2. Vivian Axiotis McGarrity says:

    What a terrific idea. You are empowering students about such an important issue.

    Though I was an English teacher for nearly 20 years, I am currently a stay-at-home mom who became profoundly interested in food when I found out I was pregnant. I wanted to give my baby the healthiest beginning. Before she was born, someone gave me the wonderful book “Super Baby Food.” It taught me how to make baby food, which I did, with joy.

    Today my kids, 4 and 2, love fresh vegetables, request homemade chicken soup when they are sick, and eat zucchini bread for breakfast or a snack.

    As I read your piece, I imagined how much more I would know if I had had a class to inspire me about food, to teach me how to plant and tend a garden, to show me the pivotal role food plays in our lives.

    Just wanted to thank you for validating what I am doing, for giving me some new things to ponder, and for helping us all “grow toward the light.”

  3. Comment submitted on behalf of David Kirkland says:

    Comment from Professor David Kirkland:
    Being a new English educator with a sense of the old English paradigm, I remember when English classrooms were just about books and print.  It was right after the Reagan Administration released its now iconic report,”A Nation At Risk,” which admonished the nation to cling to some supposed basic principles of literacy. What was actually meant by the report was that students attending schools battered, maimed, psychically and emotionally wounded–and sometimes strung out–were somehow in need of national inculcation with what E.D. Hirsch would later term “cultural literacy.” Of course, cultural literacy meant something very specific and exclusive. It masked in the guise of collective culture a sort of hegemonic literacy belonging to elites, while denying the literacies firmly planted in communities and rooted in the day-to-day activities of the people. Since that period, bold, creative educators like Brent Peters and his colleague Joe Franzen, have emerged to tell the story of the link between land and organic literacies, and of the ongoing project of respecting the assets that all individuals possess by virtue of their humanity. In so doing, Mr. Peters has enabled us to see beyond the tired everyday script of victimology running wild in our schools.  For those who don’t  know that young people, rooted in community frames of knowledge and organic principles of practice, engage in critical and cultural literacy work daily, Mr. Peters’s work with “Food Literacies” will be a haunting wake-up call. It represents a crowning achievement, dazzling in its rhetorical power, captivating in its poetic eloquence, pragmatic in its delivery. Every teacher needs to know about this gripping portrayal of post-urban youth whose literate lives, according to Peters, resist the cultural domination of others, while linking land and literacy to speak freely to history while firmly standing in the fertile soil of the present. Of the many literacy projects that I have been blessed to witness in my nearly 20 year career as an English and Urban educator, Mr. Peters’s Food Literacy project is one that I will never forget.
    –David E. Kirkland, PhD
    Associate Professor English and Urban Education
    New York University/Michigan State University
    Department of Writing, Rhetoric, American Cultures
    Department of English
    Core Faculty, African American and African Studies

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