By Ellie Doyle, FoodCorps AmeriCorps service member 2017-2018 and 2018-2019
This morning, sitting comfortably in front of a class of first graders seated cross-legged on the rug, I asked them to use one word to describe how they were feeling that day. Hands shot into the air. “I feel good,” said one student. “Happy,” said another.
I pointed, smiling, to a squirming student. “Can you tell us how you feel today?”
“Hungry,” he said.
In the community of East Boston, where I live and serve, his response isn’t unique. Affectionately called “Eastie,” my neighborhood looks different from others in Boston. At one of the schools I serve, nearly 90% of the students are Hispanic; in the city of Boston as a whole, the same population is just 19%. The great majority of my students speak a first language other than English. They come from a number of different countries: El Salvador, Colombia, Puerto Rico, and Vietnam, among others.
This rich diversity of cultures isn’t the only thing that sets East Boston apart from the rest of the city. Of Boston’s six neighborhoods, it’s considered the most extreme food desert, with the lowest number of grocery stores per capita in the city. Last year’s district profile classified nearly 95% of my students as high-need. Two-thirds of those students are economically disadvantaged, eligible for SNAP benefits or transitional assistance.
These are powerful numbers, but I am moved to serve by what I see. Thanks to a particularly fierce Boston winter, our school year was dotted with snow days. Each time a cancellation was announced, I noticed students’ distress, rather than glee. “Their families rely on school meals,” a teacher told me. “They might not know if they get to eat tomorrow.”
In comparison to the rest of the city, students and their families in East Boston have reduced access to fresh food, and many are economically disadvantaged. It is surely no coincidence that 28% of adults living in East Boston are obese, significantly greater than the Boston average. And so a question that I, like many other FoodCorps AmeriCorps service members, grapple with each day is this: what can I do? What is the role of FoodCorps in addressing inequities like these? Can planting seeds and pickling classroom carrots really matter in the fight to protect the health and wellness of our students?
Thanks to a particularly fierce Boston winter, our school year was dotted with snow days. Each time a cancellation was announced, I noticed students’ distress, rather than glee. “Their families rely on school meals,” a teacher told me. “They might not know if they get to eat tomorrow.”
The answer is, unequivocally: it can, and it does. Although the natural tendency is to blame a lack of grocery stores in areas like East Boston for health disparities, recent studies show that differences in the way people eat aren’t due to where they live. In fact, across the United States, improving neighborhood access to high-quality grocery stores is responsible for just 5% of the difference in nutritional choices between high-income and low-income families. Instead, it’s unequal access to education—particularly food and nutrition education—that accounts for most of that disparity. In short, children in communities like East Boston—that is, those facing higher rates of food insecurity and diet-related disease—don’t need more grocery stores. They need access to the same educational opportunities as their higher-income peers.
Teaching children to grow and prepare their own food is empowering. Teaching them that these things can be done within their own neighborhoods, with their families, is even more important.
And they need it now more than ever. Communities like East Boston are facing an administration that has cut SNAP funding by nearly $213 billion over the next ten years, with a proposed replacement of pre-assembled packages of shelf-stable goods delivered to families’ doorsteps. The implication for my students is that the complex network of factors that shape their food choices—their home countries, their cultures, their personal tastes—does not matter.
Teaching children to grow and prepare their own food is empowering. Teaching them that these things can be done within their own neighborhoods, with their families, is even more important. Food literacy and nutrition education is a proven way to combat the reduced academic performance and poor emotional health caused by hunger and diet-related disease in low-resource areas. To be just, and to be sustainable, that education must be provided in partnership with communities.
What does that mean? FoodCorps, as an organization, has been exploring that question for the past eight years—and there remains work to be done. It means selecting, as often as possible, staff and service members that reflect the communities they serve. It means preparing service members to be collaborators, not heroes, and expecting service to be rewarding, not glamorous. It means asking ourselves, at every turn, which voices are missing from the conversation, and how we can ensure they are included. And, always, it means listening to our students. Our questions—about their cultures, their feelings, their favorite foods—open the door to a world of understanding and growth.
“I’m hungry,” answered one of my first graders, just this morning. FoodCorps, and its partners in communities across the country, can change that story.
FoodCorps AmeriCorps Service Member Ellie Doyle 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, Boston Public Schools in Boston, 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.