Many educational policies today, including elements of the common core, encourage active learning, deep learning, learning by doing. In many ways, such policies have circled back to John Dewey and his progressive philosophy, and they echo philosopher Gilbert Ryle (in The Philosophy of Mind) who argues that “knowing that” (that is, knowing about something) must be augmented and balanced by “knowing how.”
I have always understood literacy to be about actions, about doing, about embodying and being. Perhaps that's one reason why I'm such a fan of the current food literacy programs I see popping up all across the country. I've written before about the magnificent Food Literacy Project in Louisville, Kentucky and about the exciting collaboration between Brent Peters, who has turned Fern Creek High into an “edible campus,” and Rex Lee Jim and students from Window Rock High of the Navajo Nation (dubbed the “Navajo Kentuckians”). The students in these schools and communities are developing as writers and readers, to be sure, but they are doing so in the context of gardening, of farming, of tending the earth and its nourishment. I have seen firsthand how such programs impact an entire community, as the students teach their friends and relatives about how they can better control their lives by controlling their diets. I can only imagine what such a program in every community could do to address major health issues such as childhood obesity, diabetes, and eating disorders.
I recently learned of the Food Literacy Center in Sacramento, where they are teaching “low-income elementary children cooking and nutrition to improve our health, environment, and economy. And I've been following Kirk Bergstrom, Executive Director of Nourish Initiative. In one of his postings, Bergstrom chronicles his own journey to food literacy:
Growing up in Colorado, the last thing on my mind was the story of my food. It came from the grocery store, of course. Or a fast food joint. I was enamored with anything that the astronauts might eat or drink, which meant highly processed food. One of the few memories I have of eating fresh, local, seasonal food was at a nearby cherry orchard. Wow, the burst of flavor still lingers in my mouth. Like many people, I went from meal to meal without ever asking the most basic questions: Where did this food come from? How was it grown? How did it reach me?
In a nutshell I was food illiterate. Not until I moved away from home did I begin to question my relationship to food and the larger food system. Gradually, I began to reflect on the ecological and social implications of my food choices. I discovered the joy of shopping at a farmers market. And I cherished the act of cooking and eating with family and friends. As my food journey unfolded, I found myself become more food literate. I saw food and
agriculture as powerful levers for constructive social change. How many spheres of human activity—if you design with intention—can create more vibrant communities, help solve
global warming, and restore fiscal sanity?
This powerful engagement with the story of my food led me to produce a PBS special
entitled Nourish: Food + Community and develop a companion educational initiative.
More and more, I'm intrigued with the question: What is food literacy and why does it matter?
At Nourish, Bergstrom and his colleagues define food literacy as “understanding the story of our food from farm to table, and back to the soil.” You can check out Nourish online and take a food literacy quiz.
Looking back on my childhood, I realize I grew up in a fairly food literate family. While my dad and some of my aunts and uncles had “day” jobs in offices or factories, they were country people. All my uncles and aunts had large vegetable and fruit gardens; they grew most of what we ate. They churned butter. They milked cows. And they kept pigs and chickens, and caught fish, for us to eat as well. So we knew where our food came from (in fact, I was often sent to the garden to “scrabble” for small new potatoes or to pick cucumbers and tomatoes for salad, and after dinner I got to collect all the scraps and feed the pigs, a task I absolutely loved). But that was then. Most kids today are like Bergstrom; for them, food comes from a grocery store or a fast food place; they have no such direct connection to what they consume. I am hoping that my grand-nieces Audrey and Lila will have access to a food literacy program so that their food literacy can match the other literacies they are developing. I wish the same thing for every other young person.
Among college students, I see a growing awareness of food-related issues and a growing commitment to eating local and to sustainability. When we offer first-year courses on any of these themes, they are always fully subscribed. So I'm wondering what writing programs, and writing teachers, can do to help further the food literacy movement. Certainly we can introduce our students to the movement and engage them in doing research about it. But I wonder if we could go further: could writing centers, perhaps, adopt a garden space and plant and maintain it? What might come of such an enterprise in terms of traditional literacy? My bet is that such a program would lead not only to learning by doing in the garden but by a lot of very rich talk and writing and research about the experience.
So—how about a gardening across the curriculum movement?