Jessica Ramirez, a senior at Balboa High School in San Francisco, was learning about fats when she realized what she usually ate was not doing her much good. “I learned that the decisions I make about what I consume every day have a great impact on my body,” says Ramirez.
Then last summer, she read Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal, which hammered home everything she had learned in health class. “My entire view of the fast-food industry changed. I decided to entirely cut out fast food,” says Ramirez. Now her goal is to get her family to eat more healthily. “I try to accompany my mom to buy groceries, so she will get more fruits and vegetables, and fewer chips and candies.”
Ramirez may not know it, but her food choices have put her at the entry point of the food justice movement. The Brooklyn Food Coalition (BFC), an organization dedicated to creating a just and sustainable food system in Brooklyn, N.Y., defines three key elements of food justice: (1) everyone has a right to healthy, affordable food; (2) food systems should be sustainable; and (3) food workers have a right to fair working conditions.
Beatriz Beckford, BFC’s director of organizing and policy and former school food organizing and policy coordinator, believes schools are ripe for the introduction of food justice practices. When young people eat vegetables they’ve studied in class or grown in a garden, share that experience at home and then request these vegetables at mealtime, says Beckford, they start to probe food’s role in their world—just as Ramirez has begun to do.
Start in the Classroom
Introducing students to food justice principles begins in the classroom. Take Balboa High School health teacher Chris Pepper. His ninth-grade health curriculum couples nutrition basics with the study of food origins and preparation. He shows Food, Inc., which gets students talking about animal welfare, industrial agriculture and food workers’ rights. His students also research prominent food justice leaders and organizations.
“Teaching about food justice helps make nutrition classes more engaging,” says Pepper. “Learning the story of where our food comes from is really interesting, and it involves some real critical thinking about how our world works,” he adds.
Vicente Manuel, a former student of Pepper’s, has changed his food mindset. “I became aware of the unhealthy foods I was eating,” says Manuel. “Now, instead of buying chips, I get fruit. I stopped buying fast food. I eat healthier cooked meals.” In the true spirit of food justice, Manuel has urged his mother to change her eating habits, too. He says it’s working. She buys more vegetables and fruit and stays away from frozen prepared meals and junk food.
National Gardening Association Education Program Coordinator Julie Parker-Dickinson is a proponent of teaching food justice through justice-oriented gardening programs. “School gardens,” she says, "have the power to teach young people that access to food can be solved by taking action in one’s own community.”
Say “school garden,” and some educators hear “expensive and difficult.” But that’s not necessarily true. School gardens can start in the simplest of ways.
Steve Ritz, currently dean of students at the Hyde Leadership K-12 Charter School in Bronx, N.Y., once accidentally started an indoor garden with his special education students. Ritz had set aside—and forgotten about—a box of daffodil and onion bulbs. When he rediscovered them, several had sprouted. His students forced the rest into bloom on the radiator.
“The kids couldn’t believe it,” says Ritz. “When they realized they could grow things, they wanted to start planting.” Thanks to a lot of grow lights, Ritz’s classroom at the South Bronx Discovery High School—where he was then teaching—turned into an indoor garden. It produced enough vegetables to contribute to the school cafeteria and send home to families. Students also sold produce at a local farmers market.
Ritz’s class went on to build an edible green wall—a self-sufficient vertical garden. Several of his students later became certified in green wall technology, giving them access to employment in the emerging green economy. Students also carried their work into the community by helping a local gardening group clear out a park.
Ritz sees all of this as an excellent model of food justice. “Gardening led to healthy eating and to job development in a new green economy,” he says.
Some school gardens, such as the Brooklyn, N.Y., Park Slope Elementary and Middle School’s Green Zone, follow a more traditional school garden model. More than 800 elementary and middle school students—60 percent of whom live in poverty—grow herbs and vegetables for the school’s lunchtime salad bar. A volunteer nutritionist leads healthy cooking classes, and there is an annual garden-to-school café event.
Anita Gasser-Bodzin, Park Slope’s Green Zone co-chair, says the program has influenced the way students perceive food. Children first gain an understanding and appreciation of fresh produce that they grow. Then they begin to change their eating habits—in school, at home and beyond.
An understanding of gardening and nutrition is a great start, but school gardens have the potential to serve as a platform for discussions about more complex food-justice issues as well. The Florida-based Bay Haven School of Basics Plus elementary school, for example, uses its school garden project to address agricultural sustainability.
Rolf Hanson, elementary science teacher and coordinator of the Bay Haven garden project, says students use EarthBoxes—sub-irrigated planters that use less water and increase yield—to study issues such as water conservation, organic- vs. petroleum-based fertilizers, pesticide-free gardening and the benefits of locally grown food. The gardening project has changed children’s relationship with food. Hanson says his students are excited about gardening, and they’re also learning about deeper aspects of food justice.
Schools that don’t have the capacity to address food justice issues independently can partner with food justice organizations. In this arrangement, schools benefit from outside expertise and resources, and organizations gain access to a youth audience and, sometimes, land on which to grow produce.
Mark Bowen, education and community outreach coordinator at the Montgomery, Ala.-based EAT South, works with children in schools, after-school programs and community-based organizations in poor areas of Montgomery whose residents face food challenges.
Bowen’s goal is to introduce children to and excite them about health, nutrition and agricultural sustainability in ways that are mindful of their communities’ socio-economic gaps, especially when it comes to the food they eat. “The more kids grow fresh produce,” says Bowen, “the more likely they are, as they get older, to break the bad food cycle their parents are in.”
In addition to his work with after-school programs, Bowen partners with community-based organizations and schools to model how organic gardening can be done with limited funds by developing gardens using materials that are readily available. (Tires make great planters.) At one elementary school, he helped construct raised beds and a water catchment system and planted fruit trees. He also trains teachers to develop standards-based lessons related to the subjects they teach.
Bowen strongly advises assessing programs to determine what students are learning about food and food systems and if their attitudes toward food are changing. Assessments of EAT South’s efforts on the west side of Montgomery showed that students had made measureable gains in their understanding of food origins and the difference between healthy and unhealthy food.
Partnerships also work well in more urban settings. Bushwick Campus High School and EcoStation:NY teamed up to create the Bushwick Campus Farm in Brooklyn, NY. The school campus, located in an urban, high-poverty community with above-average rates of diabetes and minimal access to fresh produce in grocery stores and bodegas, is the site of EcoStation’s two garden plots, a greenhouse and a water catchment shed.
Classes from the campus’ four schools participate in the program, which is incorporated into each school’s educational themes. Some students also participate in after-school farm activities, such as nutrition workshops, and in paid summer farm work.
Maggie Cheney, EcoStation’s director of farms and education, says the program is committed to involving the entire school community. When students work at the farmers market, says Cheney, they talk with community members about food choices, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits that apply to farmers market purchases, food subsidies and discounts on organic produce.
It Can Be Done
It’s not hard for students to start exploring and experiencing food justice in school. From making a healthy snack to planting seeds in an indoor garden to watching a film about the agricultural industry, the goal is to get students engaged and excited. That’s something a creative educator concerned about students’ healthy futures can accomplish—even with very few resources.
- Choose food justice elements that match your community’s unique food profile (e.g., availability/affordability of nutritious food, health profile, availability of growing space).
- Provide meaningful opportunities for students to think more deeply about food—first in their personal lives, then in the broader community.
- Build food justice into the entire curriculum and school culture, so it’s part of students’ everyday educational experience.
- Establish a community of teachers, administrators, custodians, cafeteria staff, community volunteers, donors, organizations and specialists. They’ll help you find the human and financial resources to develop a program.
- Start small, but think big. Have a thoughtful vision and plan, but maintain realistic expectations about outcomes and impact.
- To ensure that your program has real impact, regularly assess student knowledge about food and food systems.