The thing about rural Maine is that you’re guaranteed to run into someone you know at the grocery store, every time. I remember the day I stood in front of the tortilla chips, debating the best vehicle for guacamole, when Julia saw me.
“Hi Miss Carolyn!” burst the 9-year-old, “That’s my FoodCorps teacher, Mom, the one that does taste tests and gardening.” Her mother said, only half joking, “You’d better not look in my cart, then!” I looked in mine instead: vegetables, organic yogurt, quinoa. It was a cringe-worthy scene, highlighting how different my life is from those I serve.
For Julia, FoodCorps is a weekly class on gardening and nutrition. Food-based projects abound: cooking kale from the greenhouse, filling gardens with manure from the custodian’s pigs, tapping trees for maple syrup.
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FoodCorps is an organization of AmeriCorps leaders connecting kids to healthy food. There are 215 service members spread over 17 states and the District of Columbia. I serve in central Maine, at four elementary schools located in Liberty, Troy, Brooks and Monroe. The district is huge in area (400 square miles) and small in population (1,500 students, K-12). Free breakfast, lunch and snack are free to all students as part of the USDA’s Community Eligibility Provision, which serves the nation’s highest poverty schools.
The food I want these children to eat is not always the food they can afford. Surrounded by picturesque farmland, the families of students face the irony of being unable to access much of its produce. The grocery store might mean a 30-minute drive, and corner stores don’t stock many perishable goods.
So we serve extra veggies at lunch, and we cook in FoodCorps class. I let Emma take a bag of spinach whenever she wants, because when she comes to the greenhouse at recess it means she’s hungry. I give Ella radish seeds to plant at home. It’s still not enough. This is much more than a question of calories, vitamins and the price of lettuce in January. I cannot solve the vast injustices of our food system in a school year, but I can help my students appreciate the power and beauty of food.
As a rule, when a student offers me food, I accept. It seems counterintuitive to take food from a child who deals with hunger on a daily basis. And to be honest, what they offer is not usually food I would encourage.
I eat it anyway. Emily sneaks me a fruit gummy across the table. James saves me a Tater Tot at lunch. Dylan and I debate the best flavor of chips. These moments are important. I do not want these children to become adults burdened by the idea that fat and sugar are morally repugnant, that “healthy” food is a sign of social superiority. I want them to know that treats are part of a normal diet — even that of their veggie-pushing FoodCorps teacher. I want them to appreciate food for something beyond its caloric value.
Food serves a far greater purpose beyond filling stomachs, and childhood hunger is so much more than insufficient calories. Celebrating food at school is the only way many children are able to fight the injustice of our food system. Sharing food becomes a sort of microcosmic potlatch, gift-giving a la Marcel Mauss. The only thing more powerful than having enough to eat is having enough to give away. Though they don’t always have enough, redistributing food is a deeply empowering act for these children. I hope sharing food with students — spinach for Emma, Tater Tots from James — helps them appreciate food for more than a solution to hunger. Food, both in the acts of growing and eating, is a means of building community, sharing a story, staging a protest, practicing stewardship and creating identity.
In January, my students hosted their first school garden dinner. They planned and cooked a meal for 45 community members; a feast of chili and cornbread. Students told stories about the garden, and parents shared how FoodCorps has influenced their families. Michelle spoke of healthy recipes her son brings home. Pete’s daughter now wants to be a farmer. Paige’s dad joked that the only TV she’ll watch is cooking shows. These are voices we do not often hear in conversations of justice. Those whose backgrounds make them a target for service projects are so rarely invited to the table to share their own ideas.
That night, food helped build a community. Sharing a meal — at the same table, from the same pot — is a powerful thing. Hunger is not just an issue for the individual stomach and individual body; it is an issue for the body of a community. By planting, cooking and sharing food, our children are empowered to take the problem of hunger into their own hands, and perhaps even solve it.
Main photo: Second-graders transplant herbs in one of the raised beds at Walker School. Credit: Copyright 2016 Carolyn Wason