Spotlight on Pilot Light: Food Advocacy Projects

By Brenna O’Dea

Food Education. What exactly does it mean? You hear us talk about it all the time, but sometimes the definition can still be a bit hazy. Is it the same as nutrition education? Is it all about eating food or is it about cooking food too? Well, kind of yes and kind of no. Food education encompasses it all, and more. If you head over to our home page, you’ll get a little taste of the action, a peek into what we do:

“Helping kids make healthier choices by connecting the lessons children learn in their classrooms to the foods they eat on their lunch trays, at home, and in their communities.”

This is what food education is all about. Connecting food (both the making and the munching) to all other parts of life. We work to teach your little ones that food is closely connected with their daily math lessons, and science lessons, and history lessons. Are they curious about how a banana ended up in their lunchbox even though they have never actually seen a banana tree anywhere nearby? Do they wonder what composting is, and why the heck they should throw their half eaten apple out in the garden instead of in the trash can? Look no further! We have the answer! Okay, maybe not THE answer, but we have some of the answers. Food education is complicated. We could probably spend eight hours a day, seven days a week teaching your kids about reducing food waste and sustainable gardening and hunger relief and healthy snacking and…well…we could, but we won’t. We don’t want to burn out their brains before they reach middle school. But what we can do is devote some extra time to these important issues related to food education. These issues that fall under another fascinating and sometimes confusing category: Food Advocacy. Today we will take you through our Food Advocacy Projects from the 2016-2017 school year, and hopefully spark your excitement for food education, and what it can bring to YOUR child’s learning experience.

At The Montessori School of Englewood, Ms. Barksdale and Ms. Knight have been teaching their students about food waste and solutions to this problem. They are discussing composting and how this can be a great way to reduce our food waste. Students will track their own food waste and create posters to share their findings and solutions with their peers! They are partnering with Gardeneers, a local organization devoted to enhancing school gardening programs. Gardeneers team members will work with the kids to make compost bins that they could use everyday right in the classroom. We will be happy to wave goodbye to waste!

Over at Smyth Elementary, students from three different classes, count ’em, THREE, are all working on their own food advocacy projects. Mrs. Lopez is leading students to create awareness around hunger and nutrition. Students are selling healthy snacks to raise money for a food advocacy charity (TBD…there are SO many to choose from), and they are working on writing and publishing a newsletter explaining why and how they will accomplish these goals. Mr. Amponsah and his class is focusing on food deserts and they will present their research to the Local School Council! They say good things come in small packages, and we agree. Sometimes young minds are the brightest and boldest. This class also is also selling produce from their school garden to local restaurants and community members. But wait, there’s more! Ms. Ellis’ students did some research as well, this time about the “USDA Smart Snacks in School Rules Summary.” Her students will present their research and advocate for their healthy granola recipe, created by the 3rd grade class, to be served in the cafeteria as a snack option.

Ms. Sayeed and Ms. Brown Rivera at Disney II Magnet are making waves (literally) and reducing waste. Ms. Sayeed will lead her students in an advocacy project focused around safe and sustainable fishing practices. Students plan to research the latest policies, and interview community members about their opinions on this issue. They will write letters to corporations encouraging them to switch to safer and more sustainable fishing practices. Ms. Brown Rivera’s class is collecting trash from the school cafeteria during lunchtime, and analyzing their findings to compile data and create lessons to share with classmates about food waste at school. They will explain why it is important to reduce waste, and teach their peers how they can reduce their food waste during the school day.

Ms. Dolan and Ms. Friar from Palmer Elementary are leading projects focused on food waste as well (notice a theme here!). This time, students will create compost bins specifically for breakfast foods, including versions to keep in the classroom AND for students to take home and use with their own families. These two classes are also participating in the USDA Food Waste Challenge, and brainstorming solutions for lunchtime food waste across the 3rd and 5th grades. Plus, students have been discussing ways to improve food marketing and advertisements in order to make fruits, vegetables, and healthy snack options more appealing to young kids just like them!

Mrs. Schoenbeck and Mr. Somen at Mitchell Elementary are conducting projects all about the outdoors. Their students will create a buy-in program for their school garden, and create a system for garden ownership. They are developing sign up sheets, weekly garden activities, and crafting newsletters and posters to invite other students to get their hands a little dirty and their minds a little more open to learning not only outside of the classroom, but outside of the school walls!

And finally, three classes at Ray Elementary are engaging in advocacy projects as well! Mrs. Garcia-Kitch’s class raised awareness about food diversity in the school cafeteria. Students will also participate in a letter writing campaign in hopes of diversifying their school lunch menu. They are even creating a cookbook to sell, and will donate all proceeds to a local food bank! We know, this is almost too much awesomeness to handle…but we’re not done yet. Ms. Drewa’s students are tracking food waste in the cafeteria and developing surveys to learn about students’ favorite and least favorite lunch items, in order to learn about why certain foods might be left uneaten and wasted more than others. And last but CERTAINLY not least, Ms. Lemberis is leading her class in two projects, focused on food deserts, and environmentally friendly growing practices. Students are researching their own neighborhoods and conducting surveys of their families and friends to learn about different levels of food access around Chicago. They will also write letters to the Alderman advocating for increased awareness and action to reduce food deserts. Next, students will shift their focus to the environment, and research different methods for gardening in environmentally friendly ways. They are growing herbs right there in the classroom, and crafting cool posters to share this project throughout the school!

Ah, deep breath. Take a moment to let the magic sink in. These are REAL STORIES from REAL STUDENTS right here in Chicago. It may be the adult’s job to pack up the lunches in the morning, but your little ones are ready for a job too, and they are actually getting out there and MAKING THINGS HAPPEN. Your lil’ buddy might not be tall enough to see over the top of the kitchen counter yet, but they can still harvest veggies in the school garden! Your child might be shy and prefer to listen in the classroom, but they can still create a cookbook with their classmates and raise money for a local food bank! THIS IS COOL STUFF. Never underestimate someone because of their size or age. Your five year old just might know more about organic produce than you do, it’s all good. Because after all…”though she be but little, she is FIERCE.”

(Image by flickr member stine weirsøe licensed under Creative Commons)

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