Embracing the Unfamiliar Through Adventurous Eating with an Equity Lens
By Caroline Bargo
As I began exploring the IslandWood campus in August it became abundantly clear that the garden would be one of my favorite places here on the 255-acres available to us to teach. As a graduate student at IslandWood’s Education for Environment and Community program I act as field instructor to groups of students that visit during the School Overnight Program. Although I knew I loved the garden, I fall more deeply in love each week when I am teaching in it and surrounded by delighted children. Sometimes these students are familiar with garden classrooms, and sometimes this is their first exposure to one. Some students come in having tried all sorts of obscure veggies, and some are still skeptical. Regardless of student’s comfort levels walking into the space, it is my goal that each student who visits feels a connection to the soil, decomposers, fruits, veggies and herbs that are growing in the garden.
This year, I have been focused on stewarding my students through exciting and sometimes scary activities. We have climbed a ten-story canopy tower, crossed a suspension bridge and hiked through the forest in the dark of night. I realized after a while, though, that these adventures weren’t replicable in everyday life. One thing that students can do to push their boundaries is to try foods that aren’t familiar to them. Here at IslandWood we have the capacity to grow a unique variety of fruits and veggies, and students are often motivated to try them in the jovial team atmosphere that we foster.
Many Histories & a Delicious Meal
During my first week teaching at the IslandWood School Overnight Program I decided to give my students a feeling of place on Bainbridge Island in both in location and in time. We went through a lesson called “Histories Mysteries,” which places students at IslandWood and poses the question, “What happened here on Bainbridge Island before our field group got here?” We traveled up and down the IslandWood campus, visiting a relief map of the area, the harbor where an old mill boomed during the early 1900’s logging era, and a cemetery where generations of Islanders are interred.
We specifically took interest in the idea of the multiple histories that call the island home; we examined those of the Suquamish tribe who inhabit the land, the multitude of immigrant groups who made their home near the mill, the Japanese-American farmers who lovingly tended the land until their Internment, those who stewarded the land until their return and still today. After our initial day of trekking through history, we came back and watched a video of what the Island’s population looked like and how it has changed over the last hundred years.
The next day we visited the IslandWood garden and participated in a Soil to Snack lesson in which Chef Garreth from the IslandWood kitchen led the group in creating a meal to share. In the spirit of celebrating the history of Bainbridge Island we decided to make veggie sushi, sourced almost entirely from garden vegetables and herbs. Students cooked rice, chopped vegetables, handcrafted wasabi with horseradish grown in the garden, rolled their sushi out on their own and washed the meal down with IslandWood grown herbal tea. As we sat down to our meal, I asked the students to share the significance of the meal. They were eager to share with our chef what it meant to eat sushi on this land. Several students connected the fact that Japanese Americans tended this land until their forcible removal in 1942 and upon their return in 1945.
I aimed to incorporate culturally responsive teaching methods into this activity by having students investigate the people that call Bainbridge Island home, the history of their relationships with the land, and partake in appreciating a recipe from just one of those many cultures. The sharing of stories of our own favorite meals from our communities added yet another layer of responsiveness. I was pleased to learn that many of my students had never eaten sushi, much less made it with their own hands.
From Seed to Cookie
Even a familiar delicacy can be made with adventurous ingredients, making it an entirely new experience. My second week of teaching at IslandWood’s SOP I decided to introduce producers and consumers in a unique way. First, we started sorting quinoa grown in the garden, separating seed from hull. This provided a tactile activity for students to absorb themselves in. During the activity, we discussed the origins of the quinoa plant; it grows high in the Andes mountains, has huge cultural significance for many indigenous people in the area, and is often called the “mother of all grains.” Afterward, we ate a chocolate chip cookie made with the beloved grain.
As students enjoyed their cookies, we brainstormed what ingredients went into making them. Students shared experiences of making cookies with family members, and they certainly came in with plenty to share. I was so impressed as my students rattled off all of the different ways they had made cookies in the past. I aimed to engage in culturally responsive teaching methods by sharing the story of quinoa’s importance to Andean culture and asking students to share stories of their own cookie making. This quarter one of my goals has been to consider students lived experiences when using a tool some would think of as a “common” recipe, like a cookie. Students were able to share variations of recipes that were particular to their families and cultures. We listed ingredients on a whiteboard, and when we felt satisfied that we had all of our them down, we divided ingredients into categories that the students designed. One category was plants and the other animal. We talked about where the ingredients come from, how they grow and how they are eaten by creatures to make a new product. We decided that many of our ingredients like the quinoa, sugar and vanilla came from plants. Eggs, milk and butter came from animals that had to eat plants to get their energy; they couldn’t make any of their own. This nicely scaffolded the idea of producers and consumers, and how energy comes initially from the sun and is translated into usable form for life by plants. Students left with an understanding of the beginnings of the cookies they were eating, and of the food they will encounter in the future.
Students Deserve Healthy Food
Students who visit IslandWood may not have the opportunity to try new foods often. A recent study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that, “23.5 million people lack access to a supermarket within a mile of their home.”(Treuhaft & Karpyn, 2010). A similar study done in multiple states found that low-income census tracts had half as many supermarkets as wealthy tracts, and another found that eight percent of African Americans live in a tract with a supermarket, compared to 31 percent of whites. (Treuhaft & Karpyn, 2010). By design, IslandWood attracts quite a diverse set of students, and while some certainly have access to supermarkets within walking distance of home, many do not. These areas in which no accessible grocery store is available are called “food deserts.” According to Teaching Tolerance, a program of the Southern Poverty Law Center, because access is limited, residents of food deserts may rely more heavily on convenience stores and fast food restaurants. In general, these convenient places to get a quick meal don’t offer the variety of fresh fruits, vegetables, dairy products, whole grains and lean meats that make up a balanced diet. (Teaching Tolerance, n.d.). Students may not be presented with options in their everyday lives, but we can use our resources here at IslandWood to expose them to the idea of choice when it comes to food. When we show them that apples are delicious right off the tree, that flowers can be edible, and that sushi isn’t just something that people eat in movies we give students agency to make those choices when the circumstance arises.
“A 2017 evaluation of FoodCorps conducted by the Tisch Center for Food, Education, and Policy at Teachers College, Columbia University found that in schools that provide frequent, high-quality opportunities for hands-on nutrition learning, students eat up to three times more fruits and vegetables at school lunch — regardless of whether or not that food was grown in the garden.” (Shafer, 2018). Dinner at IslandWood is always vegetarian; meals are packed full of greens, whole grains and plant-based proteins. Not all of the ingredients come from the garden here at IslandWood, but many are sourced from local farms. Again the idea of recency prevails. As researched by the Tisch Center for Food, Education and Policy – when students have an opportunity to see where food is grown and understand the energy transfer through the sun to their bodies they are more likely to try new foods when presented with them. (Shafer, 2018).
The effect of adding a new food to a student’s repertoire may foster neural plasticity, or the ability to create new connections between neurons in the brain. These new connections are useful to all types of learning, not just about food and not just environmental education. In a study conducted by London’s Global University, participants were asked to study and recall both new and old information. Subjects were far more capable of recalling new information than the old, which was a surprise to researchers. The study concludes with a quote from Dr. Düzel, “When we see something new, we see it has a potential for rewarding us in some way. This potential that lies in new things motivates us to explore our environment for rewards… For this reason, only completely new objects activate the midbrain area and increase our levels of dopamine.” (“Novelty aids learning,” 2006). This research begs implementation with new foods. If students are exposed to new foods, their brains are quite literally open to new possibilities; we can not only use these new neural connections to show them that foods can be exciting, but to incorporate other concepts of science.
Taking Adventure Home
Students may not be presented with many opportunities to choose their own foods. In a world where many students eat two to three meals at school each day, the idea of food choice may not be a reality. I would argue that situations such as this are the best time in which to incorporate adventurous eating like we do at IslandWood. Students who have tasted the variety of produce available here at IslandWood leave our campus feeling empowered to try new things, and to advocate for their incorporation into their everyday school meals. Trying these new foods can trigger our learner’s brains to be more receptive to new ideas and use those same adventure muscles as climbing the canopy tower or crossing the suspension bridge.
Caroline is a graduate student at the Education for Environment and Community program at IslandWood in partnership with the University of Washington. All photographs were taken by the author.
Bargo, Caroline. (photograph). (2018). IslandWood. Bainbridge Island, WA.
Laurie M. Tisch Center for Food, Education & Policy. (2017). FoodCorps: Creating Healthy School Environments: Evaluation January 2015 to December 2016. New York, New York. Retrieved from https://www.tc.columbia.edu/media/centers/tisch/FoodCorps-Report-FINAL-08-30-17-v5.pdf
London’s Global University. (2006, August 2). Novelty Aids Learning. Retrieved from http://www.ucl.ac.uk/news/news-articles/news-releases-archive/newlearning
Shafer, L. (2018, July 31). Let It Grow. Usable Knowledge. Retrieved from https://www.gse.harvard.edu/news/uk/18/07/let-it-grow
Teaching Tolerance: A Project of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Food Desert Statistics. Retrieved from https://www.tolerance.org/sites/default/files/general/desert%20stats.pdf
Treuhaft, S. & Karpyn, A. PolicyLink & The Food Trust. (2010). The Grocery Gap: Who Has Access to Healthy Food and Why It Matters. Retrieved from http://www.policylink.org/sites/default/files/FINALGroceryGap.pdf