Special Blog Post by: Jessica Washburn, Writer and Food Educator

Over the past decade, I have taught kids of all ages cooking and witnessed repeatedly how students fall in love with simple, nourishing food when they make it themselves. If their hands have washed lettuce, chopped cucumbers and whisked a salad dressing, then they might not only clean their plate of leafy greens, but also demand seconds. Yet my time with students is often short, sometimes not even a semester. When a session concludes, I wonder whether any students continue cooking the recipes we made together, or at least, continue to eat the newfound vegetables they enjoyed during class. In other words, what’s the lasting impact?

This question becomes more complicated when I think of the many students I have worked with in the Bay Area who qualify for free and reduced lunch and are considered food insecure. If access to food is uncertain, then the fundamental relationship between food and nourishment becomes tenuous, even traumatic, and the ideals of cooking healthfully become secondary to more immediate concerns, namely, having adequate amounts of food regardless of nutritional content.

When I approached Second Harvest about collaborating on a new class, I was influenced by the disparity of wealth and need found in Silicon Valley. Driving on the broad boulevard on my way to the Second Harvest site, I thought of the abundance in the area – of talent, resources and food – and the simultaneous scarcity: 1 out of every 3 local children in the region are affected by hunger. I envisioned a class where underserved students in the area could explore food, but this time, through creative writing.

Partnering with Second Harvest, we identified an afterschool program in Redwood City at the Police Activities League, where 5th and 6th graders could easily participate. I designed a ten-week course, in which each hour and a half class would consist of a playful writing prompt, an easy group cooking activity and snack, and time to journal the experience in handmade books. Upon finishing the course, students would have a book of their own making with their own food writing. Over the course of the ten weeks, students would also gain an awareness of how they relate to food, as well as a sense of confidence to express their appetites, feelings and memories through the written word.

When kids explore food with their imaginations, it helps to remove expectations of right or wrong. There is so often an admonishing tone around food now, and that is not any individual’s fault. Most people, regardless of income, find the American food landscape difficult to navigate. The cheapest, most accessible foods are often the least healthy; nutritional messaging has changed drastically over the years; and food insecurity has only risen in the past decades.

For children experiencing hunger, who might not know where their next meal is coming from, this landscape becomes even more fraught with uncertainty. Though children might try to downplay this reality out of shame or confusion, the impact of hunger on kids is serious and can be life-long: hungry kids are more likely to struggle with serious health issues and have trouble learning. In turn, they are less likely to graduate from high school and go on to college. These facts, and my desire to facilitate a different kind of engagement with food, are some of the things that I took into consideration when I designed the creative writing workshop.

Please see photographs of the student work below, as well as selections of their poems and stories:

Ode to a Strawberry, by Fabrizio
red with small
Green spike hat, in fact,
Spongebob’s house hat,
explodes with taste
in your mouth!
fuzzy package,
slow-mo crunchy,
makes everyone happy.
Nature’s little bundle of joy
from white to green to red,
from seed to stem to a mini white ore
to the red result:
you put smiles on even the poorest in the desert.

Food Memory, by Naydelin
When I was young
in Thanksgiving or any holiday
When we eat our foods we
eat it like a family that brings
us happy family before the
sadness came and we would
always stick to the people
we love and care for.

The food we ate was Bread, turkey
Soup, spaghetti, and sometimes cake.
We would always go to the duck pond and feed the ducks our
leftover bread and admire
the happiness that our food brings.

I Feel, I am, I Imagine…, by Janet
I feel that I could do anything.
Like play soccer.
I feel that I could anything.
Like do Art. Sculpture.
I feel that I could do anything.
Like make money.
I feel that I could do anything.
Like dream.
I want to be in the world cup.
I want money and candy
because they are my favorite things.

Food Memory, by Jessica
Last Friday my family and I go to Jack and the Box and we have to get the same thing. It was raining and it was cold and our drinks were so cold. I was eating it because I was hungry and it was my birthday. It sounded normal because it was hot, crunchy. It had lettuce, chicken, bread, mayonnaise.

Read Part 2 of this blog series and watch a video!

* Jessie Washburn is a writer, food educator and cook based in Oakland, CA. For nearly a decade, she has used writing, gardening and cooking to introduce young people to the connection between food, community, health and land. Her education experience started at the Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley, California and continued at the Montalvo Arts Center and Bay Area Community Resources, where she designed and taught cooking classes at local public schools. She has cooked under some of the Bay Area’s finest chefs, where she developed a keen sense of seasonality and local ingredients. As a writer, Washburn holds an MFA in poetry from Vermont College of Fine Arts and is at work on a collection of poems that addresses themes of food tradition, labor, and appetite.