Required Viewing: Nourish transforms the food system through the school system

jessica goldman foung | edible san francisco | july 3, 2013

52Aurora Sekine, eighth grade teacher at Everett Middle School, asked her students a simple question: What is healthy food?

Her class gave answers heavy with words like carbohydrates, calories and fat. Labels that on their own contain nutritional value but, thanks to product marketing, also misguide and miseducate. And based on what she saw her students eating–sodas, cheesy crackers and other processed snacks– cause a disconnect between what sounds healthy and what is healthy.

“I realized they needed to learn not just about calories, fat and carbs, but how to make sustainable and conscious choices.”

That lesson, then, begins with a different set of questions. Like, what makes a soda calorie-free? Do the ingredients in those crackers come from a farm or a factory? And what long-term effects will preservatives and packaging have on one’s health and that of the environment? Questions that reveal not just a few buzzwords, but a food’s entire story–including its heroes and its villains. Giving any consumer, young or old, the information they need to correctly read into their choices and perhaps change the plot.

This is the power of food literacy. Which, according to Kirk Bergstrom, founder and executive director of WorldLink, is the essential ingredient to securing a sustainable food future. An award-winning filmmaker, Bergstrom aims to address social and environmental issues through education and engagement.

An open elective period then offered Sekine the perfect opportunity to implement Nourish materials and introduce students to big food concepts and big follow-up questions. Her class learned to track their snacks through the industrial food chain as well as identify processed ingredients and from natural ones. Sekine then brought the class to the school garden–a resource neither she nor they knew existed–for a look at food in its most unaltered state. The ultimate moment occurred when they picked strawberries and ate them straight from the vine. “They still talk about it that experience.”

This is what Nourish is ultimately after: talking. A conversation around food that in turn prompts a reaction.

“The culminating activity of the Nourish curriculum is entitled ‘Action Projects,”’ Bergstrom explains, when students design a community-focused activity based on what they’ve discovered. And with the help of 826 Valencia volunteers, Sekine’s class wrote their own PSA campaigns around the different Nourish food themes. One duo focused on the concept of growing potted herbs and vegetables in the home even when there is no space for a garden. Another twosome combated fast-food marketing with truths about preservatives. And across the board, they revealed an understanding of the food they eat and that they have a say about it.

In just two years, Nourish materials have been implemented by over 1,500 educators, businesses and nonprofit programs, spanning school levels from kindergarten to upper school and university. An accomplishment that proves viability for Bergstrom’s ultimate goal: a full sequence of curricula to be fully integrated into the school system, ensuring every student graduates food literate. Until then, Bergstrom and the Nourish team continue to cultivate good food citizens and adapt the curriculum based the ways it has been used. The materials inspiring the students, the students in turn inspiring Nourish–a self-sustaining system in the truest sense.

At the REAL School in Falmouth, Maine, high schoolers took school lunch into their own hands by growing, cooking and serving it themselves. Sixth graders in Dallas, Texas, Skyped with students in the UK to compare and contrast local and seasonal ingredients. And fourth graders in New York used their teacher’s iPhone to scan barcodes on fruit and uncover its local or industrial origins.

As Bergstrom hoped, Nourish students don’t just learn about their food stories, they rewrite them.

“Watching Nourish unfold has given me great hope,” Bergstrom says. “Hope in the power of individual and community initiative. Hope in the transformative quality of food literacy. Hope in the younger generation and their commitment to a healthy, sustainable food system. And hope that when we come together with a clear intention, big things can happen.”

“I have great faith in the ability of individuals and communities to design the future once they understand what is possible,” he says. And with the help of visual media, he believes that when given the right framework, people will draw connections and take actions on their own. Or, in Field of Dreams vernacular, if he builds it, change will come.

As for the food system, Bergstrom says it was on his project-to-do list for some time. With an increasing focus on teaching youth about healthy eating, school lunches and growing-your-own, nothing yet linked these experiences together or to larger agricultural, social and global ideas.

“What was missing was a bigger-picture view,” Bergstrom explains, “an understanding of the whole story from farm to table and back to the soil.” With camera in hand, he set out to widen the perspective. And just as school gardens filled empty schoolyards, he saw an opportunity to fill open airtime in the classroom.

The plan began in 2008 with the production of the film Nourish: Food + Community, featuring local luminaries such as Michael Pollan, Anna Lappé and Alice Waters as well as youth voices. A component that not only created a sense of urgency but also a sense of peer-to-peer collaboration. Around the same time the film premiered on PBS in 2010, WorldLink launched its national educational initiative, called Nourish. Which offered an extensive and free online library of resources–covering subjects from the importance of family dinner to the impact of mono-cropping– meant to engage youth, educators and community members in a dialogue. And ultimately, ignite change on an international, national and local level.

Created with flexibility in mind, the Nourish lessons easily integrate into any school subject and enter through any education channel. Aurora Sekine first learned about the program through a nutrition training provided by the school nurse, during which they dissected the products students regularly consumed. “She taught us that for every number of grams [of sugar] listed on the nutritional label, you divide by 4 and that’s the number of teaspoons,” Sekine says. “It was a lot of sugar and I thought it was a great visual.”

This content was published in the  Summer 2013 issue of Edible San Francisco Magazine. 2013 Edible San Francisco.

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