Food Literacy for Every Child Requires More Training for Adults

By: Amber K. Stott, founding executive director of the nonprofit Food Literacy Center (Facebook, Twitter), inspires kids to eat their vegetables and grows her own groceries in Sacramento. She’s chair of the Sacramento Region Food System Collaborative and has been named a “Food Revolution Hero” by the Jamie Oliver Food Foundation. Food Literacy Center is a 501c3 nonprofit that teaches low-income elementary children cooking and nutrition to improve our health, community and environment.

Alice Waters, Amber Stott, Jamie Oliver and Ann Cooper
Alice Waters, Amber Stott, Jamie Oliver and Ann Cooper

Last week, celebrity chefs Jamie Oliver, Alice Waters and Ann Cooper gathered in Sacramento to visit a local food literacy class. Together, they used their public platform to call for an increase in nutrition and cooking programs for kids because the research is clear: kids need food literacy education. (More pictures here.)

According to experts in the Department of Nutritional Sciences at University of Texas, Austin, only six percent of American kids eat the recommended amounts of fruits and vegetables, and 40 percent of Sacramento-area kids are overweight. Consuming even a single helping of veggies each day can begin to improve the health for our kids.

We also know that kids are more likely to eat their veggies when they receive hands-on food literacy education. As the founder of Food Literacy Center, I see this first-hand.

Our nonprofit teaches low-income elementary students cooking and nutrition classes for free during after-school programs. I’ve met kids who have never seen broccoli or beets (yes, beets!)—and then become big fans once they take their first bite.

If we want to tackle the problem of childhood obesity, we need to increase our kids’ experiences with food literacy. Studies suggest that the optimum exposure to food literacy ranges from three months to 50 hours, yet nationwide elementary aged students receive an average of just 3.4 hours of nutrition education per year.

Who is responsible for providing this food literacy to kids? Is it the schools? Parents? Nonprofits? Researchers from the Tisch Center for Food, Education, and Policy called on schools to collaborate with nutrition programs run by nonprofits, health departments and other existing agencies. Teachers simply cannot bear this burden alone. According to a study from the National Center for Educational Statistics, one-fifth of elementary school teachers indicated that high-quality food literacy training would improve their ability to teach it.

So if we really want to put a dent in the epidemic of childhood obesity, we need an army.

Chef Brenda Ruiz shows the kids how to plate the Locro de Papas - an Ecuadorian soup of potatoes and corn!
Chef Brenda Ruiz shows the kids how to plate the Locro de Papas – an Ecuadorian soup of potatoes and corn!

Food Literacy Center—and the visiting celebrity chefs—are working to build that army through a series of training programs.

Through the Food Literacy Center’s Food Literacy Academy, interested community members are intensively trained, attending 28-hours of classes on nutrition, entomology, food safety, food insecurity, obesity, and more. Once they complete the training, they deliver a lesson to one of our food literacy classes. Then they’re scored by a team of instructors. If they pass, they become a certified Food Literacy Genius, ready to deliver food literacy in the community.

When we first launched this innovative program in 2013, we were serving 120 kids per week in one school. We trained and certified 20 Food Literacy Geniuses in that first cohort. By the end of the summer, we had reached 2,400 kids.

That kind of overnight growth is needed to reach the numbers of schools waiting to receive food literacy classes around the country.

The celebrities who visited Sacramento last week have similar programs, placing a high value on peer education. The Jamie Oliver Food Foundation offers a culinary training program called Food Champions, where community members learn to teach cooking classes using Oliver’s unique approach to healthy recipes. Alice Waters has The Edible Schoolyard Academy, held each June, to train teachers and advocates to become educators in their communities. Meanwhile, Ann Cooper’s Chef Ann Foundation offers online toolkits for parents who want to lead grassroots efforts in their kids’ schools.

Want to get involved? Food Literacy Center’s Food Literacy Academy is now accepting applications. The deadline is Sunday, January 18 at midnight. You can find the application at foodliteracycenter.org.

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