Teachers Bring Food Literacy into the Classroom with Foodwise Kids

Savannah Kuang, CUESA Staff
November 1, 2019

For a class of 22 second-graders from Gordon J. Lau Elementary School, it’s a day of first tastes and first experiences visiting the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. But for teacher Loretta Encelan, the farmers market field trip is a gateway to much bigger conversations about food literacy. 

“Many of our students are unfortunately raised in an environment where they eat mostly refined carbs for dinner,” says Loretta. “The nutritional value doesn’t exist for some of these students. I try to discourage them from eating junk food that they bring from home, but sometimes, their parents can’t afford anything else.”

Every Tuesday and Thursday, the CUESA Kitchen opens up for Foodwise Kids, a free program for elementary school classes that uses the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market as a classroom for basic cooking skills and food literacy. Elementary school teachers like Loretta bring their students to the farmers market to transform their eating habits and relationship with food.

“It really benefits the students by opening their mind more,” she says. “Teaching them that they have a choice of what they can eat and how they can eat it is key.”

Integrating Food into School Curriculums

During the school year, more than 2,500 students from 125 elementary school classes from San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) visit the farmers market. For participating teachers, the program complements the school’s health and wellness initiatives, while touching upon core curriculum standards. 

“It allows me to cover more of the objectives under our health curriculum so I can focus on healthy foods and show them different fruit and vegetable varieties,” says Loretta, who has brought her students to Foodwise Kids for five years. “I also include it in my math lessons by teaching my students how to use fractions while preparing the fruits and veggies, and including this experience in other subject areas.”

Unlike being in a classroom, the Foodwise Kids field trip helps students learn by partaking in hands-on activities, such as forming teams and shopping the farmers market with market coins, creating their own recipes with fresh produce, and presenting the food they made to the rest of the class.

Foodwise Kids also helps to reinforce the Harvest of the Month program, an initiative of the California Department of Public Health that aims to support healthy eating and lifestyle habits by providing tools and resources for educators. “We try to plan accordingly with the monthly harvest,” says Loretta. “Since we’ve been to the farmers market, I connect the featured harvest with that field trip so the students can relate to what they’re learning. I think it’s important to have that connection because it’s not the same as reading a textbook.”

Accessing the Power of Choice

The Foodwise Kids program prioritizes high-need students from schools with high rates of eligibility for free and reduced-price lunch due to limited access to fresh fruits and vegetables in certain neighborhoods. About 53 percent of SFUSD students are eligible for free and reduced-price meals, according to a 2018 report from the San Francisco Food Security Task Force, and the majority of Foodwise Kids participants qualify. Students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals if the household income meet the SFUSD free or reduced-price eligibility scale for breakfast and lunch.

Monnica Burgess, a fifth-grade teacher at Hillcrest Elementary School located in the Excelsior District, says that around 85 percent of the students receive free or reduced-price lunch. “Our school is in the southeastern part of the city, where the majority of our students are below the poverty level and need extra nutrition,” says Monica. “We do as much as we can to talk about health policies at school.”

Monnica also finds that many of her students don’t have enough money for healthy meals, so they resort to snacks such as chips and candy. “There’s a grocery store about three blocks away from our school, and the only other option is a corner store nearby,” she says. “It’s what they think they can afford and what seemed readily available. Because of that, there’s a massive food equity issue from both in their homes and surrounding our school site.”

She believes that providing exposure to a variety of foods, including fruits and vegetables, can empower her students to make healthier food choices, which is why she includes health lessons in her curriculum and has brought her students to Foodwise Kids. “Having as many options as we can to introduce them to different kinds of produce and get them to try new things definitely helps.”

Anisha Rathod, who manages the Foodwise Kids program as CUESA’s Education Coordinator, agrees. “Food is a really personal thing, and your knowledge about food is heavily influenced by your surroundings, especially when you’re young and you don’t have agency to choose where you’re going,” says Anisha. “What we try to do at Foodwise Kids is open the students’ eyes to different ways they can get their food, which is accessing the power of choice. That’s what we want these kids to take home.”

A Foodwise School District

Working at the city-wide level, Saeeda Hafiz, a Wellness Policy Project Manager at SFUSD (and a CUESA board member), sees the Foodwise Kids program as a complement to the district’s Nutrition Education Project objectives, which serve over 54,000 students in San Francisco. These objectives include educating students about the health benefits from fruits and vegetables daily, and empowering teachers and afterschool staff to include nutrition education and physical activity in their curriculum.

“This experience of participating in Foodwise Kids allows students to see where their food comes from, while helping to connect the messaging around lowering some of the health disparities that are happening within the community,” says Saeeda. “Just because you’re in a specific zip code, it shouldn’t have to determine what your health outcomes will be. The more exposure that we’re doing with health and nutrition education with community partners, the more impact we’re able to have.”

Help grow Foodwise Kids by making an online donation. If you’re a teacher, sign up to bring your students for a Foodwise Kids field trip by filling out our application form.

Photos by Natalie Ngo, except last two photos by CUESA.