I first met Brent Peters, English teacher from Fern Creek Traditional High School in Kentucky, when he was pursuing a Master’s degree at The Bread Loaf School of English in Vermont, and I knew at first glance that I was talking to someone very special. As I got to know him better, I learned about the food literacy initiative Brent and colleague Joe Franzen were undertaking at their school. As Brent put it in an essay for the Bread Loaf Teacher Network Journal:
Last year [which would have been 2012], we approached our principal, Dr. Houston Barber, and our forward-thinking administration at Fern Creek High School in Louisville, Kentucky. . . . They granted us one Food Lit class for one trimester to see if students, many of whom were already struggling in their English classes, could identify with a food theme and show academic growth. Fortunately for us, students who stayed after school to work in the garden, cook, share, enjoy a meal, laugh, talk, think, and debate food-related issues in Mr. Franzen’s Cooking and Environmental Clubs were already making the case.
We knew that students were interested in food. We did not foresee the immense potential the class would have to bring down walls: walls between school and home, school and community, between academic disciplines, and between students and their social classes. When our class went to the school garden, we naturally started talking about botany and agriculture. Seamlessly, the conversation moved to include chemistry, history, mathematics, global issues, social justice, language, geography, and nutrition. We also noticed that students who were not talking in class became very vocal outside the classroom, and students who may not have talked to each other in class were laughing together as they were planting rye as a cover crop or picking cabbage worms off winter cabbages.
The Fern Creek Food Literacy program has grown exponentially. Most compelling to me is the partnership formed between the Fern Creek group and Rex Lee Jim, former Vice President of the Navajo Nation, Evelyn Begody, and other members of the Window Rock School District. Out of this partnership grew the Navajo Kentuckians, who have exchanged views, vistas, and visits, who came together at a 2013 Food Literacy Conference held at Middlebury College in Vermont, and who together presented their program and its results at the 2014 NCTE conference. In their work together and in their individual schools, these students are learning about nutrition and sustainability, about planting and harvesting, about “good” and “bad” foods, about managing crops and money. They are making a difference in their own choices of food and they are influencing their family and friends, often to change habits of a lifetime. And they are reading and writing in their own notebooks and journals about all they are learning in their “food lit” classes and in their gardens and markets.
What the students say about their experiences is insightful and inspiring. Last spring, the Navajo Kentuckians traveled to Montana for the International Indian Health Service Conference, where they presented their work and listened and learned from others. Here’s what Courtney Jones, a student at Window Rock High School, wrote to participants after the conference:
As always, good things have to come to an end. Now, I don’t feel sad–The Navajo Kentuckians left Billings with a change of heart and new ideas. We left with new knowledge to teach our communities about positive change relating to health. I’ve had a lot of time to think about this trip, and this is why I’m writing this to you all now. I’ve come to a conclusion or final thought that no matter the age, ethnicity, gender, who you know or who you don’t know is NOT AN EXCUSE or reason to stop you from wanting or helping your community, your people, and even yourself as a person. . . .