The Power of Food Literacy

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corn, food literacy, Andrea Lunsford, Navajo Nation“I could learn another song, perhaps another ceremony. Maybe I could heal one more person. I am hopeful, grandson. Life is so short. So precious.” The speaker, the 101-year-old grandfather of Navajo poet, playwright, and leader Rex Lee Jim, is responding to his grandson’s question of why he wished to live another decade or so. His grandfather says he is “still learning” and “still walking”: “I am Home God, walking. I am at the center of the wide cornfield, walking. I am planting the white corn, walking.”


For Rex Lee Jim and his grandfather, food—and perhaps especially corn—is sacred. But, he asks, “when does corn stop being sacred?”


Blue corn pancakes for breakfast. Kneel down bread (corn meal rolled in corn husks and baked in the ground). Awesome meals! Then we started washing it down with way too much fructose drinks. Coke. Pepsi. Root Beer. Dr. Pepper. No doctor at all. Today obesity reigns. Diabetes terrorizes. Yes, when does corn stop being sacred?


This question, and its answers, grew out of writing workshops and exchanges held between students from the Navajo Nation and students from Fern Creek High in Louisville, KY, who are all involved in a food literacy program that aims to change “the world by first changing ourselves, and we change ourselves by changing what we plant in the garden between our ears.”


I’ve written about the Navajo Kentuckians before (see here and here!) and the remarkable partnership that has brought Rex Lee Jim from the Navajo Nation and Brent Peters from Louisville, KY together to create such life-changing programs. Peters and his colleagues are now finishing a book—called Tigers Feeding Chickens—that all teachers of writing need to read, and to act on. I’ll be writing more about the book in another post.


For now, I want simply to point to the depth and breadth of this food literacy program, which is experiential, hands-on, student-centered, inquiry-based—and enormously effective. In it, students learn about where food comes from, about its relationship to mental, emotional, and physical health, and about food traditions in their own and other cultures. And they become questioners, interrogators of their family’s eating habits and traditions, connecting the dots and drawing up plans for enhancing and enriching their relationship to food and, in some cases, for transforming that relationship. The student writing that grows out of these experiences is mature, insightful, deeply moving: they teach themselves—and in turn they teach each other and their teachers and family members as well. As Rex Lee Jim puts it:


The essential step to becoming a true learner for life is an experience in humility and vulnerability, which leads to genuine communication with and deep understanding of our youth culture, the most abundant, energetic, and daring resource available for us.


In courses and programs that focus on learning for life, writing is not about skills and drills, not about five-paragraph essays, not about standardized tests and exams. Rather, writing becomes an essential by-product of learning, a way of crafting and sharing knowledge, and a means of putting that knowledge to work for the good of communities. That’s writing that can change lives for the better—and that’s writing infinitely worth teaching as we and our students continue to learn together, to continue to plant that garden between our ears.


Credit: Pixaby Image 1898198 by Daria-Yakovleva, used under a CC0 Public Domain License

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.