The summer before my initial year of FoodCorps service, my first priority was learning about the history of my students so I could understand their attitudes towards food. I spent time familiarizing myself with my new Iowa town. I went to local events, looked at flyers in the grocery store, listened to local radio, and read the area paper. I went to school board meetings, fairs around town, and any event that brought me closer to where I thought the families of my students would be. I wanted to feel like less of an outsider; I wanted to belong and feel connected to the community I signed up to serve. Once the school year started and I met my first class, I was unsure of how to build relationships and get to know my students. Luckily, food is an easy topic to bond over and I had a giant carrot on my shirt, which was certainly a conversation starter. Everybody eats, and most children have strong opinions and vivid memories about food.
Over my two years of service, I spent time listening to students while they shared their family food traditions and favorite recipes with me. My cooking club submitted suggestions for snacks they made at home and wanted to recreate in the kitchen. Students helped me plan field trips to local farms, food businesses, and lead scavenger hunts through the farmers market. Each class was eager to show me what they knew about their place and their history, and many came from farming backgrounds and had plenty of gardening tips, such as: “grandma grows potatoes and you are doing it wrong” or “that’s not how we grow cabbage.” My most successful lessons took something that was familiar to many of my students, such as a casserole (known as a hot dish in this part of the country), and turned it into a healthier spinoff, such as a fruit salad or veggie lasagna.
All across the country, FoodCorps service members work in vastly different communities. Some are serving communities they’re a part of, and some, like me, have the task of getting to know their new community and finding ways to connect, both culinary and otherwise. In both cases they try to connect to the culture, history, and local context for the students they see on a daily basis. Service members connect kids to healthy foods that are culturally relevant to them and the culture those students’ families come from. So, for example, in communities that are largely Latino, service members incorporate foods that reflect where their students come from, such as tamales or mole, while inviting classes to bring recipes from home. On reservations, service members work with the historical foods that have nurtured indigenous communities for years. While using and teaching culturally relevant foods,If they’re not members of the community or don’t share a cultural heritage with their students, service members will invite knowledgeable members from that community to share their methods.
One of FoodCorps’ champions, Deepa Thomas, has authored a wonderful cookbook “Deepa’s Secrets: Slow Carb, New Indian Cuisine.” In her book, she shares recipes as well as her story; the story of her Indian family and its food. She shares her culture and tweaks familiar recipes for the health of the eater. In that way, her work is deeply in line with FoodCorps — taking familiar, delicious foods steeped in history, and preparing them in a healthier way. Deepa’s book is a wonderful reminder of how food can link us to our past and propel us into the future. Thanks to Deepa, FoodCorps’ future is a little brighter. She is donating the royalties from her cookbook sales to FoodCorps.
We are lucky to have a champion who remasters recipes that have meant so much to her and shares them to make the world a healthier place. Curt Ellis, FoodCorps co-founder and CEO, wrote the foreword for the book. His words sum up nicely what I felt leafing through Deepa’s pages: “Deepa’s story takes us further: to a world where amazing things are possible, and to a worldview where we are empowered to not just follow recipes for job, love, and wellbeing, but to create them.”
- Read more about Deepa’s book and order a copy
- Read a glowing review
- To learn more about how to incorporate culturally relevant foods into school meals, see this guide by former FoodCorps service member and fellow Alex Freedman, produced in partnership with Massachusetts Farm to School