Texas – In a cozy yellow and blue classroom, a group of animated elementary-aged youth share drawings of their families eating their favorite dinners and find as many similarities as they do differences. Many of their pictures include a variety of nutritionally diverse, traditional Mexican foods, while others feature a hybridized mix of pizza alongside elotes and chiles rellenos. While facilitators encourage youth to articulate what kinds of meats and vegetables are in the meals they drew, comments and questions such as “This is neat! I didn’t know so many people ate like my family does” and “Do you think this would be hard to grow or pick?” come just as often from adult facilitators as from any youth participants.
In another room across the building, a group of teenagers is engaged in a captivating conversation about the similarities between the working conditions found in Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle,” Florida’s modern tomato fields and the Texas construction industry. The irony of the connection between the unsupportable working conditions and the immigrant-dominated workforce in each scenario is not lost on them.
Meet my students: young, working-class immigrant kids who know that something isn’t right about the world around them but don’t quite have the language to put their finger on exactly what it is. And, the hard truth is that, well – it’s a lot of things. They show up day after day to our youth program at a community center in Austin, Texas. Here, education is an exercise in problem-naming, critical thinking and action.
In other words, we do consciousness-raising, or concientización—an educational tactic that was used in Civil Rights voting drives and in Latin American liberation movements. It consists of a set of theories and practices about social change and education, named with a term coined by educator Paulo Freire. Conscientizacion, or the process of raising the consciousness of people seeking to make change, is used today in the tomato fields of Florida to win drastic victories for tomato pickers, and continues to be used around the world as part of change-making processes. We use it in our classroom, with kids who might not otherwise be asked to think critically about much. Consciousness-raising education puts kids in the driver’s seat when it comes to naming, and then proposing solutions to, the challenges the world confronts them with.
“Sounds great. How do we do it?”
Try talking about food.
Sure, it’s no surprise. The food system is broken. Those of us doing food-systems work know that the system we’ve got isn’t working for any of us, and we see it everywhere. It’s in the media, in the shiny colorful mid-section of the grocery store, on school lunch plates and on the price tags at farmers’ markets and Whole Foods.
The high visibility of the issue highlights the way that food intersects other social issues: poverty, racial inequity, health, labor and the environment, to name a few.
Our work together highlights the ability to use food as a tool to understand not just eating or health, but a whole host of other social issues. It is an example of possibility: we can galvanize a generation of youth to think differently about their food. And in the process, we can empower them to be a part of creating lasting change in the world around them.
We don’t have many cultural outlets that teach kids about food explicitly. The many implicit messages kids are getting further compound and entrench the problem. Think hip-hop McDonald’s commercials. Think free lunch (which in my school featured over-cooked canned vegetables and instant mashed potatoes). This makes for a sticky situation, one that is especially complicated for kids of color and the working class. The messages we send teach kids what food looks like (often brightly-colored and shiny), and what it ought to taste like (salt, fat and sugar). They learn where it comes from (gas stations at worst, grocery stores at best) but not about how it got to them (Where does it grow? Who picked it?). Worst of all, they learn who has the right to what foods, based on the foods available to them. This makes the situation even more complicated for these kids, both because of what they do learn, and also because of what they don’t, and what these messages enable them to forget.
Most of the youth that come through our doors are of Mexican and Honduran descent. Their parents often come from agricultural families, and most have migrated here over the last ten to fifteen years due to a lack of economic opportunities in their home countries. In crossing borders, they lost not only their land or their houses, but a set of traditions, language and practices. In arriving, they’ve gained access to a different set of resources, alongside a different set of traditions.
In the context of food, this has meant a reduction in the number of home-cooked meals. For many, migration comes paired with a transition from a largely fresh, plant-based diet to one that relies on boxed foods, quick or fast foods, and meats as a staple, resulting in higher rates of food-related illnesses like diabetes, obesity, and heart disease. Moreover, the social and cultural pressures of assimilation run high for immigrant families. Messages about preserving any traditions, food or otherwise, are virtually non-existent.
Ask the youth I work with about their favorite foods. They are just as likely to tell you that they’d prefer pizza or Takis (a spicy, neon-red chip concoction) as they are to say arroz or tamales. When we asked them to draw pictures of their families' dinner habits, they were surprised and pleased to hear that others in the room eat similarly. Some talked about how others at school eat differently, and how they feel weird about the foods their families eat because so many kids at school eat things that look so different. And the main thing they dislike about school? Lunch is gross: meatloaf, weird pizza, and over-boiled vegetables (likely frozen or canned in the first place).
Teaching about food often happens in a de-politicized vacuum. But it holds the possibility of becoming the first step in a change making process. Educative strategies that bring students’ lives into the classroom facilitate youth’s ability to build knowledge based on their own experiences. When student experience is taken as a primary point of departure, it becomes possible to build an analysis of the world around oneself. This enables students and educators to partner in the creation of a transformational process, one in which classroom participants are positioned as agents, capable of naming, understanding, and solving their own problems.
I am convinced that education about food can, and does, serve multiple purposes. The question is whether we are ready to do this work in a way that acknowledges the politicized context in which we live and eat. It can, and should, enable young people of color and working-class kids to re-evaluate the messages they get about food from the world around them, thus giving them the opportunity to learn about other pressing social issues – like poverty and inequity – at the same time.
This kind of education opens up the possibility to bring about a shift in consciousness that our world desperately needs. It gives young people an opportunity to see diverse cultural practices and traditions as a valuable asset. Moreover, these kinds of teaching strategies ask youth to see themselves as agentive beings, serving not just the food movement, but also broader struggles for social and economic justice.
Learning about these issues in a transformative, consciousness-raising classroom, kids learn to see themselves within the issues. Here, while they learn about food – what it really is, where it comes from, and how it arrives to them – they also learn about themselves. Their critical thinking skills are challenged as they are asked to zoom back and forth between the micro (the apple) and the macro (the system that brought it there), and to place themselves and others along that continuum – a skill that is necessary for understanding and solving social issues.
In order to confront aggressively inequitable social conditions, we need to develop a multitude of strategies. The intricately woven webs of inequity that shape our world require us to be innovative, visionary, and, most of all, practical in our approaches as we seek to interrupt these systems of power. It is this reality that convinces me that any long-term vision for creating change in our food system must incorporate transformative educational practices as one tactic among many in order to reach and sustain the world we envision. With this in mind, I offer these experiences not as a roadmap, but rather a question: what are you willing to do in order to make it possible?