My students and I are reading the novel Seedfolks by Paul Fleischman, a series of vignettes about each character’s life woven together to tell the story of how a community garden comes into existence. It came to me that, in my effort to intentionally build a caring classroom community, it would benefit us to start our own community garden. So much life is being taken in the world around them and I’m hoping it will do my students some good to, instead, nurture life. I became super-excited at the prospect of growing our own vegetables and herbs from mere seeds! I imagined my students and I partaking of a healthy salad that we grew — together!
My local library — remember I wrote to you about how wonderful it is over the summer — actually gives away free seeds so I went there, selected a variety of seeds, went to school the next day, and shared my bright idea with my students. I began the conversation by asking how many of them eat a vegetable with each meal. They looked at me like I had two heads and laughed out loud! The thought of eating veggies was scoffed at and scorned. Many of them had never even heard of zucchini, much less eaten it. Eggplant got a collective “yuck” upon mention. Salad was a bit more tolerable to some, but only if eaten once in awhile with lots of creamy dressing on it. I was not completely shocked by their response, but was definitely saddened and concerned.
I see what my students eat everyday. Many come late to first period ladened with high sodium chips, high-fructose corn syrupy drinks, and fried fast foods — no vegetables or fruits in sight — purchased from the local corner bodega, a staple in the ‘hood. The school lunch that students are offered, aka “schoolie,” is becoming healthier thanks to a big push from Chancellor Carmen Fariña alongside a health-conscious collaboration between the NYC DOE and the USDA, but it’s still not all-the-way healthy and most certainly not that appealing to the eye.
Stay with me. This is not simply about nutrition. Poor-quality food is part of inequity in education.
In a very compelling article, author Belinda Luscombe writes,
Fast food is cheap, filling and of course, fast. That makes it a lifesaver for some parents. But it’s also incredibly unhealthy and now a new nationwide study suggests that eating a lot of it might be linked to kids doing badly in school.
Researchers at the Ohio State University (OSU) and University of Texas, Austin, found that the more frequently children reported eating fast food in fifth grade, the lower their improvement in reading, math, and science test scores by eighth grade.
The difference between the test scores of kids who didn’t eat any fast food and those who reported eating a lot was significant: 20%.
I mentioned to you before that I began my teaching career in 2010 teaching in a very affluent, exclusively White school district on the famously old-money Gold Coast of Long Island. Like most schools, they had vending machines and schoolies; however, what was being offered and served was unlike anything I’ve ever seen before or since. The vending machine was filled with organic, whole grain, low-sodium, low-calorie, low-Sugar, high-fiber healthy-option snacks. The school lunch offered organic brown rice, black beans, and mesclun salad; as an alternative, vegetarian lunch option were available for students and teachers everyday.
Compare that to the Doritos, cheese fries, Taki’s, Arizona iced tea, pizza, burgers, peanut-butter and jelly, and fries that are a staple in the vending machines and on the lunch menus of schools that educate predominately Black and Brown children from a lower socio-economic status. Consider not only the disparity but the over-arching implications for academic stagnation and decline. This is part of the equity and accountability dialogue that is so important, yet I don’t hear nearly enough about it in the national conversation. The poverty that claims many communities of Color is far-reaching and damaging on multiple levels. How can you learn if you’re hungry or if the fuel you are feeding your body is of the lowest quality? There are so many documentaries on Netflix about the benefits of adopting a healthy way of eating as a lifestyle, but how is that possible for those for whom healthy options — like eating fruits and veggies daily — isn’t accessible?
The garden the my students and I are growing in our classroom community began as a way to bond on a social-emotional level. Since learning about how and what they eat, it is my hope that our garden will nurture not only their souls but their bodies and minds, as well.