Eat Your Veggies: Cultivating Community Health Through Food Literacy
On a drizzly afternoon in December, Amber Stott is slicing radishes in the basement kitchen of Capitol Heights Academy. Surrounding the table, volunteers grate carrots or cut up cabbage and swap stories.
Stott is wearing a green shirt that cheekily orders “Raise Kale!” as sleeves smattered with strawberries poke out from under the shirt. That she has decked herself in fruit- and vegetable-inspired attire is no mistake—the mission statement of her nonprofit, Food Literacy Center, simply states “Our mission is to get kids to eat their vegetables.”
In Stott’s backyard a pineapple guava bush blooms next to navel orange, Valencia orange, lime and Meyer lemon trees. Five bushes of blueberries cozy up to finger limes, epazote and spineless nopal cactus. A Pink Lady apple tree thrives next to a Fuyu persimmon tree and an Asian pear tree.
In the right season, her garden beds are full of nine kinds of peppers, and tomatoes dangle from their vines. She has created her own personal food system that deeply connects with her passion for food literacy.
Growing food was never a question for Stott, but a way of living she learned early on. Her mom and dad tended a yard similar to the one she now cares for in Sacramento. They had an apple tree, a cherry tree, and canned their own tomatoes. Her grandmother baked from scratch. Her aunt owned a bakery. Of her real-food roots, she said, “It wasn’t a movement. It was a lifestyle. It’s a natural thing for me to surround myself with good food and cook from scratch.”
As a child in rural Illinois, Stott grew up in a food desert farming community where most of the crops grown were commodity and not for direct consumption. Her best friend’s father farmed potatoes for a big potato chip company. Stott described driving once a week to a bigger town in Iowa to pick up affordable groceries.
In college, Stott showed an interest in nonprofits. Wherever she had worked in high school and college, she received the accolade from her colleagues that one day she was most likely to become president of a women’s charity.
“You hear that sort of thing enough and you start to realize there’s some truth in it. So, when I was ready to start this nonprofit, I guess I didn’t think it was such a giant leap.”
For three years she worked as the senior communications manager at Freedom from Hunger, a nonprofit in social services. Jane Goodall’s book Harvest for Hope came out around the time of Omnivore’s Dilemma. It set a mission in motion.
“The more I read, the more I got riled up. I needed an outlet.” In 2008, she started a food blog called “Awake at the Whisk,” as opposed to being asleep at the wheel about food, “to inspire people to be conscious consumers.”
In just a couple days, the seed of an idea began taking root for what would become California Food Literacy Center.
“Education has always been high priority for me. I had enough food systems knowledge and had contacts in food systems that I decided, ‘Why not start this nonprofit?’ Food literacy is a big gap in the food systems and I could do something about it.”
Instead of focusing on parents, she decided to focus on kids. “Based on research and studies, we know we can influence family behavior through the kids,” said Stott. “We have two generations of Americans that don’t cook and don’t know how. If we can get them young, we can stop this cycle.”
As her program committee Stott assembled a team of experts with backgrounds in nutrition, marketing, holistic health and a representative from Kaiser. They reviewed campaigns for behavior change that will preempt kids from bad habits later in life.
“When you’re trying to develop habits and behavior change, you start young.”
Stott cites the importance of teaching kids to read early on as a critical life skill, and points to appreciating fruits and vegetables at an early age with the same level of importance.
“Seventy percent of the kids go home and tell their parents they want the foods they tried in their Food Literacy Center classes. They ask to help cook dinner,” said Stott. She began putting together a curriculum to teach children where their fruits and vegetables come from and how their choice of what to eat impacts their bodies, the environment and their community.
In 2012, she started the pilot program at Capitol Heights Academy in Oak Park with 120 children per week and only one intern that first year. The children were receptive to learning where their food comes from. Stott focused on “making it easy for them to succeed” like making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, swapping apple slices for jelly, or homemade bean burritos as an alternative to fast food.
“We start out with familiar foods and within six months, we’ve gotten kids to eat quinoa and brown rice.”
Sometimes the children pass on trying produce but nine times out of 10 the children are open to trying new produce through food literacy classes because the commitment to a snack is not as big as a meal.
“Adults assume and convey that assumption to kids that they will not like vegetables. It’s a lie. Kids love vegetables,” says Stott.
She describes how children have become open to seeing a new fruit or vegetable, and rather than thinking they won’t like it, they wonder what it tastes like. “They are going to take that positive attitude out into the world.”
Food Literacy Center classes work with kids enrolled in kindergarten through sixth grade. “The younger children are when exposed to fruits and vegetables, the better,” says Stott. “You see kids eating a better diet when they’ve had the exposure.” She likens teaching kids to taste and begin appreciating fruits and vegetables early on as akin to teaching them how to wash their hands or to say please and thank you.
At the beginning of a school year, chefs accompany volunteers to determine the menus. All fruit and vegetables used in the program are selected by season and come mostly from the local food bank or from Harvest Sacramento, a local nonprofit of fruit tree gleaners.
At the end of the year, the kids nominate five vegetables to elect as the “Veggie of the Year.” The chefs will come back several times throughout the program as guest speakers and will present each of the five vegetable nominations for Veggie of the Year to the kids or demonstrate a recipe. Food Literacy Center teachers go through Food Literacy Genius training to ensure the teaching in all of the school programs is consistent, is in line with national health standards and is recognized by health professionals. In addition to the Food Literacy Geniuses, other volunteers work with the kids to ensure the classes run smoothly. Chef Brenda Ruiz has been cooking professionally for 20 years and volunteers as a Food Genius. She says, “Volunteering with Food Literacy Center has shown me how to share my knowledge in a fun way in the community.”
Rather than finding resistance, when Stott began the Food Literacy Center she began receiving many requests to bring this free after-school program into other schools. While the curriculum could be implemented into daytime learning since it features requirements for STEM education, Stott said, “We can impact larger numbers of kids through after-school.”
One after-school partner wants to see Food Literacy Center expand into all of their locations. As Stott acknowledged, “There’s a lot of work to be done.” Derrick Mayo, a teacher in the Capitol Heights Academy after-school program who also started the garden program at the school has seen the children embrace the classes.
“It’s exposed the kids to a variety of foods they don’t get to experience on a daily basis at home,” said Mayo. “The kids can suggest to their parents foods they tried at school.”
California Food Literacy Center changed to Food Literacy Center in 2014 because people began thinking the nonprofit was a fully funded state agency, which it is not. Food Literacy Center is continuing to grow through donations and fundraising efforts, but is still a small program.
“We leverage a lot of volunteers and run streamlined programs. The demand and need is huge,” Stott said. In 2013, Food Literacy Center’s operating budget was $130,000. In 2014, they aimed to close at $250,000.
“We have a small staff and we have to grow to meet the demand.” Twenty graduates matriculated through the first Food Literacy Genius program. This allowed Food Literacy Center to expand to reaching 2,500 kids in 28 library branches from the previous 120 kids served a week. “Food Literacy Geniuses are crucial to the growth of the nonprofit.”
Stott describes how Sacramento is playing a vital role in the food movement. In 2013, celebrity chef and real-food advocate Jamie Oliver called Stott a local food hero. In January, Oliver returned to Sacramento, along with Alice Waters and Ann Cooper, to visit a Food Literacy Center class where the children cooked for them.
“Sacramento is the capital of the eighth-largest economy in the world and I think Jamie Oliver recognized its importance in the food movement.” Stott describes how giant agricultural company representatives comingle with grassroots nonprofits in Sacramento and don’t picket each other. “It’s important to play together because what happens in Sacramento will percolate out to the rest of the country,” says Stott.
Looking into the future, Stott looks back to the beginning.
“When I started this nonprofit, I looked for where there was a gap. I did my research and talked to other nonprofits to establish if this was truly a gap.” And it’s working—food literacy is a term more people understand today. The State of California declared September “food literacy month” in 2012. Stott is working toward clinching the financial resources necessary to widen the Food Literacy Center program to 10 schools in 2015, which would more than double their reach. This would require doubling their budget and empowering more Food Literacy Geniuses to take on more classes.
Back in the basement at Capitol Heights, a big yellow bowl of brown rice gets passed around. One child adds grated carrots—another tosses in cabbage. Each child brings something to that big bowl of food that mixes together into a meal that nourishes the children and adults alike as Stott smiles and spears another forkful of salad.
Annelies Zijderveld lives in Oakland, California, where she writes and also teaches cooking classes. Her first cookbook, Steeped: Recipes Infused with Tea will be released in April and focuses on how to cook and bake with tea.