Sick and Tired of Being Sick and Tired: Food Activism
at Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School
BY ANDREW WOLF
Photos by Andrew Wolf
I walked into my first food justice class in New York City during October of last year. After writing “food justice” on the board, I waited for the class to arrive. As the students made their way into the room, it didn’t seem like many of them were taking notice of either the visitor (me) or the chalkboard.
I was introduced by the students’ advisory teacher, Luz. A little nervous about getting the students interested in how food gets to our tables, I began by telling the class who I was and asking a starter question. “Who here knows what food justice is?” I asked.
I received blank stares. One student raised his hand, a smile on his face, “Protecting fruits and vegetables from getting hit.” Then, as if to save his answer from being just a joke, he added, “You know, so they aren’t bruised when they get to the store.”
I smiled, then tried to bring it back. “Let’s break it down. What’s food?”
This one was easy. “What we eat, Fruit Loops, chicken nuggets, milk,” were some of the answers.
“Now what’s justice?”
Luz jumped in. She reminded the 10th-grade advisory class that they had talked about justice when they read Plato.
“What’s fair, protecting people, what’s right,” they answered. Now the class was getting it.
“Right, so food justice is…”
“Food that’s fair,” one student replied. “People eating what’s healthy,” another responded.
I smiled. “Now you’ve got it.”
Thus began my school year challenge: develop a curriculum that would create space for students to be healthy change advocates around food in their communities.
1,500 Miles in Eight Days
Meeting with students only once a week, I had a total of eight days to make real the approximately 1,500 miles that food travels before it reaches our tables. After these eight foundational classes, I hoped that students would be inspired to act on what they had learned, coming up with a project such as making a bodega in their neighborhood healthier or creating a public service announcement for their school.
As I began to talk to the class about healthy food and where it comes from, I realized that to make it real for students and answer the “So what?” that inevitably follows abstract discussions about food miles and greenhouse gases, we had to make the class relevant to students’ lives. How is the food available and affordable in the South Bronx linked to diabetes and heart disease? How does food affect our moods and concentration as we go through the school day? How can food make us sick and tired?
Introducing the idea of a “food environment,” we began to explore aspects of food that surround us every day: advertising on packaging, billboards, and the Internet; processed foods in our supermarkets and school cafeterias; and the items available in a bodega. Instead of talking about processed food, we went to the bodega and looked at food labels to see the ingredients and decide for ourselves whether they were healthy, somewhat healthy, or not healthy at all. Not only were we able to develop our label reading skills, it also became apparent what sort of food is available close to the school, leading to an active discussion on food in the South Bronx.
Another opportunity to get out of the classroom was through conducting a Community Food Assessment (CFA). Starting with the U.S. Department of Agriculture CFA Toolkit (www.ers.usda.gov/Publications/EFAN02013), we designed our own series of surveys. This was a great opportunity to think critically about the food in the neighborhood. If we wanted to find out what people are eating, what questions should we ask? How could we know if people are cooking, where they’re getting their food, or their suggestions for healthier foods they’d like to buy? In terms of the food environment surrounding the school, how could we track where different foods are located and what sorts of advertisements for food line the streets? Our class was able to get outside and see for ourselves what the food is like where we live and work.
Even when we couldn’t leave the building to make food issues real, we used role-playing to understand topics such as farm labor. By acting out the roles in the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ Campaign for Fair Food, a community-based Florida workers’ rights group, we began to understand not only the labor that goes into bringing our food to the table, but also the power for change that groups of people have when they unite to protect workers’ rights—or to bring healthier food to their community. By the end of eight classes, we knew the basics of healthy food and were beginning to see the possibility for advocacy in our community.
Cookin’ it up with Luz
Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School is an “activist school,” following in the tradition of its namesake, Mississippi civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer. Our class decided that to become food activists, it wasn’t enough to tell people to “make healthy choices.” Instead, we needed to create an environment in which those choices are possible. We were left asking ourselves, “What now? How can we do that?” Strategizing, our class decided that first we needed to educate our community about the current food system, inspiring others to demand food justice and reaching the critical mass necessary for real change.
Since January, we’ve been filming and editing a video entitled “Cookin’ it up with Luz” in tribute to their teacher, Luz, who invited me to their school to work on this project and is an alum. The video is a cooking show that also talks about food justice issues, such as what kind of food is available at bodegas and how much it costs. In addition, we put together six cooking kits to rotate among classes and teach other students the tasty (and fun) possibilities of healthy food. While students touch and taste healthy foods, food justice class members share their message that community health is related to the accessibility and affordability of food in their neighborhoods.
Although the focus of our class has been food, the lessons we’ve learned about social justice and how it can be pursued through advocacy at the local or even national levels can apply to many aspects of students’ lives. Rather than being disengaged individuals or identified solely as consumers rather than active citizens, students can now speak up as members of a community, inspired by Fannie Lou Hamer’s quote, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.” If the right to fresh food, safe streets, and healthy bodies will be achieved, it will be because we have developed a sense of civic participation and activism through engaging in ethnographic community research. Food justice class explores issues of food to develop a commitment to advocacy with the hope that change is possible.
Andrew Wolf contributed this article just prior to his tragic death in a cycling accident in New Brunswick. Andrew was riding for the Ottawa-based Otesha Project, an organization that promotes sustainable consumption through theatre, storytelling and other activities
At the time of writing this article Andrew was working as a a food educator at the Children’s Aid Society Go!Healthy Program in the Bronx and Upper Manhattan. He began teaching about cooking and food at Brainfood in Washington, DC, where he was a chef and educator. While studying at American University, he spent 9 months in Chile, and received a grant regarding “Student Social Justice in Chile,” on which he wrote a thesis. He graduated from American University Magna Cum Laude.
This article originally appeared in the 2010 CARTS Newsletter published by Local Learning: The National Network for Folk Arts in Education and City Lore, based in New York City. We thank the editors Paddy Bowman and Amanda Dargan for generously sharing this article with Community Works Journal readers. More information can be found at www.LocalLearningNetwork.org and www.citylore.org.
Andrew's family have asked that donations in his memory be made to the Otesha Project. Community Works Journal encourages our readers to visit the Otesha Project's memorial page to Andrew Wolf, celebrating the remarkable spirit of this gifted young educator.
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