By Zoe Flavin, FoodCorps AmeriCorps service member 2017-2018
It’s a cooking day in late spring in the food justice elective I co-teach as a FoodCorps AmeriCorps service member at Lowell Career Academy. We’re cooking up a vegetable stir fry on a hot plate in the classroom. Some students are chopping garlic scapes and snap peas freshly picked from our garden, while others stir together soy sauce, rice vinegar, and honey for a sauce. Soon the smell of garlic and ginger frying begins to fill the room. Students from another class lean their heads through the open door and ask, “What’s cooking today?”
Students in my class demonstrate their hunger in different ways. Some students are direct, sharing statements like, “I’ve only had a bag of chips since yesterday.” Others are more subtle. Sometimes it’s difficult to distinguish hunger from its myriad effects. A student may be calorically full, having eaten a stream of white bread and hot Cheetos since I last saw him, but still show signs of hunger—distraction and a spike in energy falling to morose depletion. I see in so many students a desire for nourishment. This nourishment can certainly come from healthy, fresh food that provides sustained energy and brain development. But it must also come from being in community around such food.
A student may be calorically full, having eaten a stream of white bread and hot Cheetos since I last saw him, but still show signs of hunger—distraction and a spike in energy falling to morose depletion.
If you think about your favorite food, you probably have some happy and loving memories tied to it. Someone you loved gave it to you when you were upset or it’s a food you frequently share with close friends. Often, we love certain foods because they remind us of times where we have felt belonging, like we are part of a community.
During my time in schools, I’ve so often seen students punished for effects of hunger such as distraction, irritability, or aggression. My goal as a FoodCorps service member this year was to use food as a way to welcome students into community. During cooking classes, we listen to students’ favorite songs, we talk about our pets, our families, and our dreams for Lowell. Before we sit down to eat our food family-style, we share one thing we’re grateful for. It’s in one of those indescribable moments where we’re taking our first bite of saucy stir-fried snap peas that we’ve grown ourselves, laughing about a story a student is sharing, with the sun shining through the window to make the room a tinge brighter that I hope that my students have not just satisfied their hunger but also found nourishment in our shared community.
No matter how healthy the food on their lunch plate is, for students to feel nourished, they must be in a space where they feel as though they are welcome and understood.
Nourishing students through healthy food in warm community is possible at every school. Yet, I know too well through a year of FoodCorps service that we’re not there yet. The following are three recommendations that would bring my service site, a school where I teach teenagers gardening and cooking and about healthy eating, closer to this goal.
The first is a designated space to cook. Since my site is a satellite school with no scratch kitchen, I made do by carrying a kitchen into the classroom in bins filled with hotplates, cutting-boards, utensils, and ingredients. A fully-equipped kitchen is a necessary step in allowing students to prepare nourishing food in community.
Nourishing students through healthy food in warm community is possible at every school.
The second is funding for professional development for all adults responsible for monitoring the cafeteria to be trained in healing, culturally-responsive behavior management. No matter how healthy the food on their lunch plate is, for students to feel nourished, they must be in a space where they feel as though they are welcome and understood.
Finally, video equipment would have helped me to capture these stories of nourishment. Yes, students are starting to prefer more vegetables, but this change in preference is only the beginning of a much larger story. I believe their preferences are changing because they associate fresh, healthy food with memories of that intangible, human, soul heartbeat connection of cooking and eating in community.
It’s within this apparatus of community that students feel safe enough to take risks around their food choices. These risks are necessary starting point for changes in preference. These changes are what I hope for and know we can achieve for all of our students at my service site and beyond.
FoodCorps AmeriCorps Service Member Zoe Flavin was a runner-up in the 2018 FoodCorps Victory Growers Award “for a compelling account of hunger and food insecurity,” winning a $1,000 prize for her service site, Mill City Grows in Lowell, MA. The award, sponsored by C&S Wholesale Grocers, highlights that many children struggle with hunger and food insecurity, and that the food they receive at school is the most important meal they will get all day.