For over five years now—since FoodCorps started as a program—we’ve had a service member placed with the St. Mary’s Nutrition Center. Based in the heart of Lewiston, my site is centered in one of the only urban areas in Maine. It is a city rich with the stories of immigrants—first Irish and French Canadian, then Somali and Somali Bantu, now Angolan and Congolese and Djiboutian and many others. Traditions from countless cultures and backgrounds intersect here through style, through business, and certainly through food. I believe that they make the city more vibrant, and more alive.
FoodCorps members like me, serving in immigrant communities across the country, have a vital role to play. We are tasked with connecting kids to healthy food by creating healthy school environments. In my service at Longley Elementary —where 65% of the students are English Language Learners— a healthy school environment doesn’t just refer to the food and drinks that are served and offered there. It also means making students feel welcomed, loved, wanted, and included. It means that they are celebrated for their identity itself, its presence, and its brilliance. And it necessitates that we all must fiercely encourage the soft and tender parts of their personalities while accompanying and standing strong with the rougher ones.
Through my programming with FoodCorps, I am equipped to be able to interact with my students in the best way for each of us. By doing hands-on lessons in gardening or cooking, language, for instance, is not a barrier to happiness or growth. Of course I often find myself in a language lesson nonetheless. I offer the English word for garlic and they offer a Somali, French, or Arabic word, inevitably giggling at my terrible pronunciation.
As fun as it is, it is vital to recognize the journeys that brought my students to this complicated city. Some of them were born here and are part of the first generation of Somali children and youth to be raised in Lewiston, but some of them are still arriving, each month, from refugee camps. The educators in Lewiston and I work hard to celebrate these students by accommodations in lesson plans, one-on-one time with student with behavioral issues, or by providing the quiet assurance of a lunch on the table and a snack in the classroom. For my students, growing and trying new food is a bridge-builder: these actions can give comfort, and they can certainly build confidence.
My students occupy complicated social identities in American society: Muslim, refugee, immigrant, asylum seeker. They hold so much in their pasts and on their backs, dealing with unfounded hate and misplaced violence and yet; at the same time, they are still just children. Sometimes it is hard to balance the joy of sitting down for lunch with giggly kindergartners while recognizing the real, visceral effects of everything else they are balancing, outside of our school walls.
So, when I teach them about food, I try to do it in a way that focuses on joy. I want to be able to address the whole child, in order to let them know that they are accepted, admired, and loved. In this way, I am helping to build a healthier environment for them as they eat, learn, and grow into themselves as New Americans. I’m so glad to be a part of the journey.