By Amanda Greenlee, FoodCorps Americorps service member 2017-2018
In the second grade classroom where I teach, I saw the face of hunger in Paterson, New Jersey drawn in crayon on the “my favorite meal” worksheet I handed out. “Draw a meal that’s special to you or your family,” I explained, “then label each food group.”
My students had breezed through the food groups activity I had begun with, eagerly sorting broccoli, yogurt, and bread into the categories on the MyPlate template. But when I asked them to do the same with a meal they eat at home, they were stumped, and to be fair, so was I. “Miss Amanda, what food group do marshmallows go in?” One student asked, “Are Oreos a grain? What about Takis?” I stammered, not sure how to explain to my students that their favorite foods didn’t have a place on the MyPlate diagram.
This trend was further exemplified in the cafeteria. Children buzz about the room, exchanging Takis for Doritos, Cheetos for Tostitos like cryptocurrency traders. These heavily processed snacks, devoid of any real nutritional value, are woven into the fabric of cafeteria culture at my school. Hunger, I found, doesn’t always look like starving children desperate for a handful of rice. It also looks like children who can list off every flavor of their favorite brand of chips but have never tasted a carrot.
I was determined to convince my second-grade students that vegetables were just as cool as fidget spinners or slime.
I knew that as a FoodCorps AmeriCorps service member, I was charged with not only connecting kids with healthy food in schools, but also building a “schoolwide culture of health.” I was determined to convince my second-grade students that vegetables were just as cool as fidget spinners or slime. So we chopped up spinach in science class and planted peas, tomatoes, and cabbages in the school garden. Truthfully, due in large part to the innate enthusiasm that young children have, this part of my service has been relatively easy. My students have gone from scoffing at salad and, in one case, literally gagging upon tasting a sprig of parsley, to eagerly slurping kale smoothies and asking for seconds of raw broccoli. I have seen firsthand how nutrition education has improved my students’ attitudes towards healthy eating and their willingness to taste new foods.
But as the year has gone on I’ve realized that my students’ hunger, and their preference for unhealthy food, isn’t solely due to the trendiness of junk food at school. It’s also a result of their environment. Every day as I drive down the hill away from the school, I watch a sea of students in blue polos and khakis stream into the nearby bodegas, whose outer walls are adorned with colorful food advertisements, and emerge with bags of chips. These foods aren’t just the norm in my school; they’re also the norm in Paterson. I started to realize that building a schoolwide culture of health doesn’t mean assembling something new. It also means deconstructing an existing culture that has been shaped not only within the school’s walls, but in the kids’ homes, in the stores they shop in, and in their interactions with each other.
Furthermore, as I spoke to more people from Paterson—people affected by and working to alleviate hunger in the city—my understanding of what a culture of health meant became increasingly complex. And as I continued looking for the sources of these issues, I found that my scope extended almost infinitely outward. My school’s culture isn’t just about the cafeteria trends or the advertisements on nearby bodegas. It’s also about the wages my students’ parents are paid. Rent and taxes in North Jersey are some of the highest in the country, yet many of my students’ parents are paid insufficient wages to support a family. And it’s also shaped by national policies like immigration laws. Some Paterson residents hesitate to look into available services because they fear being detained by ICE. Hunger doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s not a result of random traits of a community. Hunger is structural, bound up with our country’s long history of racial and socioeconomic discrimination. It is staggeringly complex, and it is also gravely urgent. One in three children in the U.S. is on track to develop type-2 diabetes, and for students of color—like most children in Paterson—it’s one in two.
Hunger doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s not a result of random traits of a community. Hunger is structural, bound up with our country’s long history of racial and socioeconomic discrimination. It is staggeringly complex, and it is also gravely urgent.
FoodCorps has had visible impacts on my students. Seeing them gravitate towards green beans and lettuce over candy and potato chips makes me hopeful that in FoodCorps classrooms, our children may defy the statistics that loom over them. But it is just one piece in a complex web of steps that must be taken to address hunger in Paterson and in the United States. Before we can build a culture of health, we must disassemble the culture of inequity and racism that perpetuates hunger. This structure is so complex and so robust that it won’t happen overnight. I hope to see top-down policy solutions that destroy this structure like a wrecking ball. But given our current political climate, these solutions do not seem imminent. Fortunately, there are multiple ways to destabilize a building. We need to keep pushing for top-down solutions. But in the meantime, FoodCorps service members are kneeling at the building’s foundation, removing one screw at a time through nutrition education, school gardens, and supporting a healthy cafeteria culture. Furthermore, the complexity of hunger means that there are many ways one can get involved. Whether you choose to fight for fair wages in your community, for humane immigration policies, or for healthy corner stores, you can help, too. If we all start working in our own communities to disassemble this structure from the bottom, eventually it will fall. And once it does, we can begin building a more equitable, more inclusive culture of health from the ground up.
FoodCorps AmeriCorps Service Member Amanda Greenlee won the 2018 FoodCorps Victory Growers Award “for a compelling account of hunger and food insecurity,” winning a $5,000 prize for her service site, United Way of Passaic County in Paterson, NJ. 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.