Helping Kids To Celebrate Their Culture, Through Food

Helping Kids To Celebrate Their Culture, Through Food

Thu 31 Jan 2013

Story by Robyn Wardell, with Whitney Smith, FoodCorps Michigan

When you eat good, healthy food, you have the energy to run a mile or to stay awake in class.

But, eating food sustains more than just our physical bodies. When we eat together, we strengthen community and help to celebrate and preserve culture.

FoodCorps service members have the opportunity to use food as a tool to help youth understand themselves. Through their service, they expose students to the many ways that food leaves an imprint on their lives for the future and connects them to their families past. Whitney Smith, serving with the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, has devoted much of her efforts this year to connecting her students with their African Heritage through celebrating food. For the past few months, she has devoted herself to developing curriculum for her students to encourage them to revive African traditions in the classroom. She worked with her students to plan a celebration that brought them closer to their ancestors and closer to a healthy food future.

“We danced, we rapped, we ate, and we celebrated our heritage! The Food Warriors, my 2nd-4th grade students at Nsoroma Institute in Detroit, learned about the traditional Ghanaian Yam Festival and the principles of Kwanzaa for weeks. In order to celebrate both of these traditions, the students put together an exciting event that involved performances of an afro-brazilian martial art, dramatic readings of poetry about vegetables, and a potluck feast. Throughout these festivities, the students reflected on symbolic decorations that they created for the event.

One example is the mkeka. In the tradition of Kwanzaa, the mkeka is a hand woven mat symbolic of the foundation that our ancestors made and which we continue to build upon. The students charged each other with the task of bringing in one fruit item to contribute to a salad that was shared collectively. With this communal fruit salad, they emulated the African harvest tradition of sowing and reaping collectively. The event culminated with a potluck-style meal of bean stew, sweet potato casserole, and collard greens. By recreating and building upon age-old traditions, they added to their ancestral “food foundation.”

Together with the parents, school community, and leaders of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, I have been able to help students to embrace African food traditions and reinterpret those traditions to create and express their own ideas about food and culture. Students not only take pride in their heritage, but also feel empowered to take ownership over the food they eat and more importantly the foods they are no longer choosing to eat. Their reinterpretation of these traditions also instills tolerance, by helping them to understand there is no right or wrong way to celebrate food or culture. With this understanding they are able to challenge mainstream notions that often promote homogeneous culture, without diversity— monoculture— with acceptance!"

Celebrating diversity through food is particularly important in communities like Detroit, MI, where citizens are fighting daily for food sovereignty. Through celebrating food cultures, making policy recommendations, and growing their own food on unused land, Detroiter's are reclaiming agency over their own food system.

Whitney's service with FoodCorps has enabled her to be a part of the city's very active food security movement and to ensure that from an early age, Detroit's youth is proud of its roots and can look forward to a just food system to come.

FoodCorps is recruiting for its next class of service members. You can read more about it on their website. Applications will be accepted through March 24th.

About the authors: Robyn Wardell is the FoodCorps Fellow for the state of Michigan. Prior to that she was a FoodCorps service member in Flint, MI where she helped to build and revitalize 5 school gardens, began conversations about sourcing local foods for the school cafeterias, and organized hands-on lessons and field trips for her students. Whitney Smith is a FoodCorps service member in Detroit, MI where she teaches in several Detroit African Centered Charter Schools, educating students on gardening, food justice, and nutrition, as well as instructing youth at D-town farm on urban agriculture.


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