What Does the Word “Food” Mean at The Children’s Aid Society?

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By Stefania Patinella, Director, Food and Nutrition Programs at The Children’s Aid Society

Every Go!Healthy workshop at The Children’s Aid Society schools and camps begins with a rapid-fire, free-form brainstorm: what does the word “food” mean to you? We always get a broad range of answers: family, money, diets, yummy, culture, nutrients, and on and on. Having conducted this exercise dozens of times, I’ve had a chance to reflect on the many answers, and I’ve come to a few conclusions.

First, food is about need, we must eat to live. Second, food is about want, we crave food, and we want to enjoy it. These two functions of food—nourishment and enjoyment—are and should be inextricably linked, for our own survival and happiness. However, today we have a rift, a huge divide, between these functions. The mere mention of healthy foods, those that have the nutrients we need to think, grow and move, makes most kids’ noses wrinkle with disgust.  Delicious foods? That’s easy: donuts, chips, burgers...

This distressing food environment is a logical extension of inadequate federal food policy that includes, among other problems, unchecked marketing to children by food companies and misguided federal agricultural subsidies (24% of federal agriculture subsidies go to fruits and vegetables, while 74% goes to meat and cheese production, often heavily processed). While it is essential to advocate behind the scenes to help build environments that make healthy choices easy for children and families, it is also critical to empower individuals to make those healthy choices.  

The aim of our Go!Healthy cooking and nutrition program is to show children that healthy food can, in fact, be delicious. First, we empower young people with cooking skills, a basic life competency largely lost along with the decline of home economics and the ubiquity of heat-and-serve foods. Second, we encourage them to be adventurous eaters, especially of fruits, veggies and other plant-based foods. Limiting children to a steady rotation of the four “kid-friendly” food groups—pizza, burgers, chicken fingers, French fries—misses an important opportunity to broaden young people’s palates with fresh, healthful and culturally diverse meals.  Finally, we give young people the skills to be “conscious consumers,” fully aware of what they put in their bodies. This means learning to read labels and deconstruct advertising techniques by food companies that spend billions to convince children, indeed everyone, to buy their junk food.

These goals apply to the Go!Healthy curricula developed for every age group at Children’s Aid Community Schools, from toddlers to teens. With toddlers, of course, we get the message across with puppets, story-time and fruit parfaits. By the time they are in middle school, students are using Chef’s knives and cooking up Veggie Pad Thai. In some sites, we’ve built Community School gardens so children get the full seed-to-table experience, and two Washington Heights schools are drop-off sites for Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) deliveries (a program that connects low-income communities with farmers to bring healthy, fresh and affordable food).   We also enhance classroom lessons with trips to local farmer’s markets and sometimes host our own school-based Youth markets.  Finally, we found that friendly competition is a powerful motivator and our annual Iron Go!Chefs competition has yielded spectacular results.

Once students are in high school, we begin to talk about Food Justice, that critical intersection between food and social justice. We ask students to think critically about the link between poverty, racism and food access. Students conduct a community food assessment, which includes mapping access points for unhealthy and healthy foods, identifying food advertisements in their neighborhoods, and interviewing their neighbors to find out where they shop. We end on an empowering note – students choose a project designed to answer the question “How can I make my community healthier?” One group greened their school’s concrete courtyard by building a garden, in part with a recycled locker they planted with carrots. Another group made a cooking video with their teacher Luz Bracero (“Cookin’ it up with Luz!”) to encourage their peers in other advisories to whip up some healthy treats. This group also made fruit hand-puppets and filmed a skit of them talking to one another about where different fruits could be found in the neighborhood. So I guess, after all, puppets aren’t only for toddlers.