Food Literacy and Student Achievement

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Some time ago I wrote about a forthcoming book about a food literacy program ongoing at Fern Creek High School in Kentucky, and about the truly dramatic difference that program has made in the lives of students there. Now, at last, the book is out! Entitled Say Yes to Pears: Food Literacy in and beyond the English Classroom and written by Joe Franzen and Brent Peters (with a foreword by the inimitable Dixie Goswami), this book is now available from NCTE as well as from Amazon and other venues.


About this book, I said:

Readers should pull up to this remarkable book as though it were a table, a table laden with mouth-watering savories, with cooking experiments, with homemade donuts, with radishes that pop up “like lollipops,” and with the wisdom of two visionary teachers and scores of deeply committed and imaginative students. Dip in to any page and you will find a story worth listening to and lingering over. You will hear voices that will echo in your ears for years to come. And you will get to know the power of young people with a purpose, who “say yes to pears” and so much more as they become increasingly powerful thinkers, readers, and writers. So turn the page, dig into this feast of possibility, and learn how food literacy has shaped the lives and communities of those you will meet here.

354257_Image 2 11.7.19.jpegIn these pages, you will meet Ivy (right), whose grandmother’s 50 pounds of pears provided a way to launch the class, as they made pear butter, pear chutney, pear sauce, dried pears, and pear apple almond muffins and began the series of experiments that would lead to so much discovery and learning.

You will meet shy, reticent Milo, whose food map (below) and narrative makes a powerful connection between his dying “father figure I never managed to call Dad” and “the guilt of biscuits and gravy” (20). You will meet Camdan, Pearl, and Don flipping pancakes early on in a Food Lit class, about which one of the authors says:

The students thought they were making pancake batter. What we actually did was break the conventional dynamics of the classroom. I put them in charge. I offered risk with an authentic reward. I made them teachers for one another. Then they defined what the class would be. For the rest of the course, I will be only a guide. (p. 92)


As the Food Lit class blossoms into a food club, a garden, and many other activities, the students bring in their parents and friends, the community comes to embrace the program, and the students get better and better not just at gardening, not just at cooking, as meaningful as those arts are, but they get better and better as students, and particularly as writers. As a result, the school, once labeled a “failing school,” began to gain its footing and its identity—and test scores began to rise. As Franzen and Peters put it, “What the food studies program has been able to do is blur the lines between home and school, individual and community, learning and fun, disciplines and reality” (162).

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Reading Say Yes to Pears has made me think about the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford, with its themed first and second year courses: we can be sure that if we offer courses with themes related to food, they will attract a wide and broad group of students. Now I think we should begin such classes asking students to draw the kind of food maps featured in this book:

We ask students to go to the places in their memories that show their full selves, and we ask simply that they list the ingredients of their memories—the sounds, the people, the dishes, the places, the failures, the lessons, the favorites, the confessions, the gross encounters, the losses, and the celebrations they have had around food. . . . We write the word “food” in the center of a piece of paper and then we list all the things that surround this word. (p. 17)


A pretty simple assignment, at first glance. But the explorations it has engendered, the learning it has enabled, the students it has inspired all speak to its power. Might be worth making a food map of your own—I am about to sketch one right now!


Image Credit: Andrea Lunsford

About the Author
Andrea A. Lunsford is the former director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University and teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English. A past chair of CCCC, she has won the major publication awards in both the CCCC and MLA. For Bedford/St. Martin's, she is the author of The St. Martin's Handbook, The Everyday Writer and EasyWriter; The Presence of Others and Everything's an Argument with John Ruszkiewicz; and Everything's an Argument with Readings with John Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters. She has never met a student she didn’t like—and she is excited about the possibilities for writers in the “literacy revolution” brought about by today’s technology. In addition to Andrea’s regular blog posts inspired by her teaching, reading, and traveling, her “Multimodal Mondays” posts offer ideas for introducing low-stakes multimodal assignments to the composition classroom.