After nearly a decade of inspiring children to eat healthily, the California-based nonprofit Food Literacy Center is building a zero net energy cooking school. It will be ready just in time for the organization’s tenth anniversary this fall.
The Food Literacy Center currently serves elementary students at 16 low-income schools in South Sacramento, where many children are at high risk for diet-related disease. “Our students come from food insecure homes, they live in food deserts, and their neighborhoods lack resources like parks and sidewalks,” the center’s CEO, Amber Stott, tells Food Tank. “They also have parents who work multiple jobs or shifts that don’t accommodate traditional family mealtimes.”
Nearly 40 percent of children in Sacramento County are obese, according to the University of California Los Angeles. Ninety to 100 percent of Food Literacy Center students rely on free and reduced lunch programs. Ninety-two percent are Black, Hispanic, and Asian American.
Food Literacy Center classes incorporate cooking into STEM curricula—short for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. For instance, students might measure ingredients in math class or make emulsions in science. Kids taste a diverse array of fruits and vegetables and cook new, culturally appropriate recipes every class. They also spend time in outdoor gardens, where they harvest produce and study plants.
“We know that if we make nutrition education hands-on and make it fun, we can engage students and get them excited about eating their veggies,” Stott tells Food Tank. “We don’t put any pressure on kids to eat or not eat the food. Our instructors show up with joy… We explore. We play. We high five over bites of broccoli.”
The Food Literacy Center teaches kids how the food they consume impacts the environment. “We talk a lot about how foods that are good for us are good for the planet,” Stott tells Food Tank.
The organization also helps its students understand food prices. Teachers discuss the cost of homemade recipes versus fast food restaurants, and which local farmers markets offer Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) matching—or programs that match purchases dollar-for-dollar for food aid recipients.
Food Literacy Center classes have found success. Ninety-five percent of the organization’s students tried a new fruit or vegetable each week. Eighty-four percent say they have a positive attitude towards healthy food. And 70 percent of students bring their healthy habits home by requesting vegetables they tried in school.
But, like most organizations, the center was forced to overhaul its program in response to COVID-19. Starting in April, the team created take-home Veggie STEM Boxes containing printed lessons, recipes, and fresh produce. The organization distributed more than 1,720 kilograms (3,800 pounds) of produce in 2020, including 585 Veggie STEM Boxes.
Now, the Food Literacy Center is preparing to transition to a new location on the campus of Laetaata Floyd Elementary School in Sacramento, called Floyd Farms. The 2.5-acre learning center will feature a 5,000 square foot net-zero energy kitchen and a sprawling green space.
Floyd Farms will offer free cooking and gardening programs for Laetaata Floyd’s 330 students, as well as community members, parents, and students from other local schools.
The kitchen at Floyd Farms will be equipped with induction ovens that draw heat from solar panels on the roof. And the center’s outdoor space, which sits across the street from public housing, will include paths for walking and playing, farm animals, and produce beds—such as a pizza herb garden, a Southern California cactus garden, and edible flowers. After six years of planning, Stott says she finally picked out paint colors this month.
In other good news for the Food Literacy Center, California State Governor Gavin Newsom recently announced a US$10 million farm-to-school grant program. “Now that the state of California has allocated dollars and staff behind this, it’s a sign that farm to school is here to stay—and can only continue to improve and expand! It’s an exciting time,” Stott tells Food Tank. Stott will serve on a subcommittee tasked with facilitating the program.
Stott has high hopes for the future of food studies and farm-to-school programs. “We’ve all learned so much over the years and developed consistency across programs,” she says. We need to capture that knowledge and expand it.”
Next up, the Food Literacy Center is launching a podcast this month, called Raising Kale, on which Stott will interview guests across the country working to change the world through food.
Photo courtesy of the Food Literacy Center