In 2008, I was producing a radio program on youth obesity when a guest, Dr. Ben Danielson of Seattle Children’s Hospital, said, “You can’t teach an unhealthy child, and you can’t keep an uneducated child healthy.” Another guest, a nutritionist, pointed out that the “achievement gap” does not reflect a learning problem among children, but a public health problem with obesity, hunger and cheap foods.
I had been a children’s book publisher for nearly 20 years but never made the connection between learning and eating until then. How can children learn if they’re on a sugar rush from breakfast or hungry from skipping it? A key problem is that many children and families lack a basic knowledge about what and how we eat. In other words, they don’t have food literacy.Many children don’t know where their food comes from or what it looks like outside its packaging. Families are eating on the run, with 19% of meals consumed in the car and 45% of eating taking place alone. This is why my wife and I started READERS to EATERS in 2009 to promote a better understanding of our eating habits by connecting good eats and good reads. READERS to EATERS started as a popup bookstore, selling books about food at farmers markets, educational conferences, and community food events. We also partnered with King County Library System to create educational programs and community food events such as One-City Read programs.
This year, we launched our own publishing program with Our School Garden!, written by Seattle school librarian Rick Swann and illustrated by Christy Hale, about a boy who experiences the garden across different seasons and curriculum. In September we’ll publish Feeding the Young Athlete, a food shopping and cooking guide for middle and high school players, parents and coaches. In November, we’ll have Sylvia’s Spinach, a picture book about a picky eater and how growing food at school changes what she eats.
Next year we will publish Farmer Will Allen and the Growing Table, by Jacqueline Briggs Martin, who wrote the Caldecott winning Snowflake Bentley, about the Milwaukee urban farmer, former basketball star, and MacArthur “genius.” These books allow children to understand and experience food in ways that are fun and relevant to their everyday lives.
It’s exciting to see libraries taking a role in promoting food literacy. Public libraries such as San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley lend out seeds and gardening tools. Libraries in Madison, Alabama and Grand Fork, North Dakota have children’s gardens. The Northern Onondaga Public Library in Upstate New York is a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) pickup spot. Davis Bilingual Elementary School in Tucson, Arizona uses aquaponics to raise fish in its library. There was a “What’s Cooking @ ALA Cooking Stage” at the convention this year to connect good eats and good reads.
More and more, public institutions such as libraries, schools and parks are taking a greater role in growing a food community by creating gardens, partnering with food banks and farmers markets. The Baltimore Reads Literacy Garden addresses the needs of food deserts as well as literacy deserts by offering free books AND fresh seasonal produce and/or herbs.
The harvest season is coming up. September is Food Literacy Month and October is National Farm to School Month. October 24th is Food Day. It’s a perfect time to use books to engage young readers to learn about good food and stories behind where it comes. As author and librarian Rick Swann wrote in Our School Garden!, “Being in a garden is like reading a good book: You’re never sure what is on the next page, but you can’t wait to get there and find out. So what are you waiting for?”
Our guest blogger today is Philip Lee. Philip is the co-founder of READERS to EATERS, based in Bellevue, Washington, and the co-founder and former publisher of Lee & Low Books. He was also a host and producer of the radio program, Voices of Diversity, on KBCS in the Seattle area. More about READERS to EATERS is at www.readerstoeaters.com.
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