Students turn into 'food adventurers' in food literacy class

SACRAMENTO - Beets and lettuce are 8-year-old Jasmine Tran's favorite vegetables.

"[Beets] can make your hands really red when you eat them," Jasmine said with a big smile. "It's kind of fun."

Her classmate 8-year-old Cailey Vetter Chittood doesn't have a favorite vegetable, but loves apples.

"My favorite one is the pink lady, that's the name of the apple; it's the sweetest apple," Cailey said.

The Capitol Heights Academy third graders are part of the after-school California Food Literacy Center program. The weekly classes teach elementary-age students about eating healthy. The non-profit organization is also part of after-school programs at Florin Elementary School and Pacific Elementary School. In addition, the center works with Sacramento Public Library branches to hold free hands-on cooking lessons for elementary school students who don't attend one of the three schools.

"These kids are growing up with a broader food literacy base than many adults right now, which is why we want to start young and start with this generation," California Food Literacy Center Founding Executive Director Amber Stott said. "So we have a whole new generation of kids that this is basic knowledge -- this isn't new, this isn't foreign. This is just how we live and how we eat and what we know."

Stott was a food blogger before she founded the literacy center in 2011. She had worked in non-profit management and had a special interest in the food system. When she started blogging in 2008, she got a good response from readers.

"(I) was getting a lot of positive feedback from people about how simple and practical some of my suggestions were, and it was really changing their lives," Stott recalled. "For me, what I was putting on my blog wasn't complicated, but the amount of impact it was having on people really left an impression on me; and I thought, 'wow, we really need to be doing this on a bigger scale -- in schools and reaching kids before those bad habits have already taken hold.' So I just, sort of, decided to go for it and started the non-profit."

The California Food Literacy Center is still young but continues to grow. In the center's first year it raised $40,000; in 2013, it raised $130,000. Stott hopes to secure more grants and sponsorships; she wants to garner community support through donations and volunteers to expand the after-school and library programs.

"We're a super focused non-profit, which is, I think, our strength and why we are successful with the programs that we run," Stott said. "We have just two programs: one is training community members as food literacy instructors, and the second is teaching elementary school kids. So the way we will scale and grow is by training more food literacy instructors, and the more of those we have, the more schools we can go into to."

The program has grown to serve more than 2,500 children.

"You get to learn new things, you get to try new things, you get to eat," Cailey said as she explained what she likes about food literacy class. "And we get to hear fun facts and we would always do these activities."

In the after-school program, students are taught by volunteers - or, as Stott calls them, "food geniuses." The food literacy center has only two paid employees who manage the administrative end of the non-profit. Stott said the second employee was hired this year. The rest of the program is dependent on volunteers.

MORE: Learn how to become a food literacy instructor

The "food geniuses" arrive at the school 30 minutes before the 2 p.m. class starts to prepare for the lesson. They go over flash cards and worksheets, and then prepare the food - the majority of which is donated by the Sacramento Food Bank or Soil Born Farms. Lessons could be about a produce and where it comes from or a cooking lesson with a basic and simple recipe.

"We assume that kids will only eat nuggets and macaroni and cheese, and that's just not true," Stott said. "We see results with our kids, especially the K-1 (students), within a month of being there. We see these kids happily gobbling up anything that we hand them. And it's just a matter of re-creating a healthy habit for them. Kids want to eat and have fun with their food. And when you approach it with a fun and excited attitude, they respond to that."

The students will try kale, radishes, pomegranates, a variety of fruits and all the 'green food' you think children wouldn't like during class throughout the year.

"It's all about giving kids repeat exposure to new and different kinds of things," Stott explained. "We've given the kids endive and dates and fennel, and it's just all about helping them form those habits, by giving them repeat exposure because the more they see these different kinds of foods, the less weird it becomes. They become little food adventurers, where when they see something new, they go, 'oo, I want to try that,' rather than, 'oh, that's new I better be afraid of it.'"

Students also learn how food is processed in the body and how to prepare a healthy meal. And when class ends ...

"They give out fruits," Jasmine explained about one of her favorite parts of class. "Because once you get to know all the stuff you need to know, then you can have a little snack to eat."


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