Food Literacy Program in Sacramento Helps Children Develop Healthy Habits Early On
March 3, 2016 | Annamarie Sysling
While the issue of food accessibility in low-income neighborhoods is not new, in recent years awareness of the problem has grown. The Sacramento, California-based Food Literacy Center is tackling the issue by engaging and educating the city’s youth.
Since 2011, the Food Literacy Center’s Founding Executive Director Amber Stott has been utilizing her background in social work to transform the health of her community.
“Food literacy is as important as reading and math,” says Stott.
Stott says she started thinking about proactive ways to address the issue of illiteracy around healthy, fresh food options in 2008.
“I had this idea and thought someone must be doing this. The more I dug around I just didn’t see it being done. I thought it was an important gap to fill,” Stott says.
Stott says that while food banks were swapping junk food for vegetables and fresh food, she would regularly see healthy options sitting in the parking lot outside because people didn’t know what to do with ingredients they had never used before.
For many, “in this day and age, cooking is boiling a pot of water and opening a can of Ragu,” she says.
The program specifically targets children’s eating habits by looking at other successful behavioral change campaigns like anti-tobacco and wearing seatbelts.
“Even though kids aren’t the smokers and the drivers, these programs are targeting kids because you want them to develop these healthy habits early on,” Stott says.
The Food Literacy Center currently offers free after-school cooking programs at eight Title 1 public elementary schools in Sacramento, where a significant number of children from low-income homes and are reliant on free lunches provided by the school.
“We know from statistics that low-income families are hardest hit when it comes to diabetes and obesity,” says Stott.
Stott says she uses her background in social work to communicate with children via positive reinforcement.
“For example, if a woman leaves her abusive partner, you don’t berate the partner, instead you try to point out the positive things about the woman’s decision. I thought, why aren’t we doing this for food?”
Stott says that instead of telling people that everything they’re doing is wrong, she opts for guiding children through a reevaluation of the foods they’re familiar with. They focus on easy ways to replace unhealthy ingredients with better options.
The sessions run after school for either 13 or 28 weeks, depending on each school’s schedule and preference.
Stott says most of the children, who are between kindergarten and sixth grade, “have never used a recipe before, but all of them have made a peanut butter sandwich.” So she starts with that.
First, she swaps out the peanut butter for sun-butter because of allergies, and then she talks about replacing jelly for fresh fruit slices.
“It really freaks the kids out at first and they’re all like, ‘Ew, gross!’ but as they start following the directions to make the sandwich, they start wiggling in their seats and raising their hands asking to eat it,” says Stott.
Later in the program when children are asked to discuss their favorite lesson, the peanut butter sandwich often comes up.
“I think it really opens their minds in this fresh and exciting way. So that’s our entry point, taking something positive that they know they already like and making some subtle changes,” says Stott.
After the first lesson, the Center continues introducing healthy swaps for familiar recipes, and they bring in “produce of the day” which is often something unfamiliar to the children, such as blood oranges or fennel.
Stott says by the end of the program, the children are eating brown rice and kale salad.
”It’s something we need to work up to,” she says with a laugh.
Less than four years ago, the Food Literacy Center consisted of only Stott teaching 100 children a week at one school. Today, the Center has about 60 “food geniuses,” who are volunteers that lead after-school programs at eight elementary schools in Sacramento.
Stott says the cost of running the program in each school is about $5,000 for a 13-week session and about $15,000 for 28 weeks.
Even though the nonprofit is growing and has the support of the community’s school district, coming up with the funding for this program is a challenge.
“Seventy-five percent of the funding is from individuals cutting a $10 check here, or a $100 check there,” says Stott. The rest of the funding comes from several other grants ranging from $5,000 to $25,000.
In the next five years, Stott says she hopes the Food Literacy Center program will be in all of the high-need elementary schools in the Sacramento City Unified School District, Stott says she would love to expand the program statewide or even nationally in the years to come.
In recent weeks, Stott and her team made a giant leap, getting them even closer to reaching that goal. The school district voted to approve building a “Broccoli Headquarters” on a 2.5-acre elementary school campus.
The Broccoli Headquarters, which is expected to be fully operational by the end of 2017, is primarily an urban farm on the grounds of Leataata Floyd Elementary School. Stott says the site will be equipped with a learning kitchen facility, a learning garden and a production farm that will provide food for the elementary school cafeteria and for other schools enrolled in the program.
In its first year, the workspace and farm will allow the Food Literacy Program to double the amount of schools in the program.
“We can go from eight schools to 16 in the first year, mainly because we’ll have the cold storage we need, the supply storage we need and the commercial kitchen aspect, so we can prep some of the food off-site that we bring out to the after-school programs,” explains Stott.
Stott hopes the new facility will have an even greater impact on students.
“Having a school district making the health of their kids a priority is a dream,” says Stott.