Culturally Relevant Food Literacy

colorful fresh vegetables

By: Lindsey Beatrice, with research assistance by Olivia Brown and Sarah Thorson 

This disclaimer informs readers that the views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this blog belong solely to the author, students of CU Boulder’s Masters of the Environment (MENV) program and their research, not necessarily to Nourish Colorado as an organization, nor does the blog represent the work that Nourish Colorado is leading.

Welcome to the last blog in our summer series, Root Down, Rise Up with MENV! We’ve covered a whole host of topics so far: climate change and food security, farm workers and food justice, addressing nutrition and food insecurity, and revitalizing Indigenous foodways. Now, we need to figure out how to tie it all together. How do we create a more sustainable, resilient, equitable food system that ensures all people are fed? The first step is to work on improving food literacy, for both adults and kids. 

What is food literacy? 

Food literacy, as defined by the Food Literacy Center, is the ability to “[understand] the impact of your food choices on our health, environment, and economy–and understanding that these impacts are not experienced equitably.” Many people don’t know where their food comes from, what goes into producing it, how it affects workers, or even how it affects their own health. A lot of our conversations around food center on diet culture, food trends (e.g., cauliflower as carb replacement), or maybe new restaurants or recipes we’ve tried, rather than how food gets to our plate in the first place. 

And, as a society, we tend to ignore the role that food plays in our mood and general wellbeing. Serotonin is the hormone that plays a role in stabilizing our moods and making us happy, and surprisingly, 90% of our serotonin receptors are found in the digestive system. That means the food we put in our bodies has a huge impact on our moods and emotions. Eating a diet rich in vegetables, fruits, and foods that aren’t highly-processed boosts both our physical and mental well-being. This is especially important for kids, as it reduces their risk for diet-related diseases like obesity, diabetes, or heart disease. But currently, over two-thirds of calories consumed by U.S. teens and kids come from ultra-processed foods, and this number has been on the rise in the past two decades. Increasing food literacy helps to create more equitable health outcomes as diet-related disease disproportionately burdens BIPOC and low-income communities. 

Via Chantal Garnier on Unsplash

Food literacy can also be used to boost the sustainability and fairness of our food production systems, as agriculture accounts for a quarter of our global greenhouse gas emissions, and has a history of exploitation. Not everyone has the ability to choose foods that are better for them and the earth—there are issues with accessibility and affordability for many folks. Junk food and convenience food marketing also tips the balance towards detrimental choices. But for those that do have the agency and economic ability to make food purchases that promote physical, environmental, and social health, do it! This signals that consumers understand food impacts and can help start to shift the agriculture industry towards better practices. Making these choices requires broader social education and food literacy around agricultural supply chains and impacts, and requires a shift in the way we market food items. (Note: For true change to occur, individual action also has to be coupled with policy and institutional re-prioritization.) 

So how do we promote food literacy? And how might we do it in a way that incorporates culturally relevant foods and histories? 

Culturally-relevant food literacy for kids

One major avenue is to incorporate food literacy into educational objectives. Studies have shown that school gardens are effective at encouraging healthy food exploration among kids, and that when coupled with nutrition education programs kids are more likely to choose a vegetable at lunch. Researchers in New Zealand found that schools with gardens see lower obesity rates and that students from low-income households benefit the most from garden programs. It is also important that food literacy objectives consider not only foods from traditionally European diets, but that they also include education around herbs, spices, and vegetables from non-white cultures. Food ties together cultures, and many refugees and immigrants can lose those connections to their ancestral foods when they relocate. For kids, especially those displaced from homelands, culturally relevant food literacy and garden education can help foster a sense of belonging in their new communities. 

Via Eyoel Kahssay on Unsplash

Culturally-relevant food literacy for adults and communities

That sense of belonging is important to adults too. Black and Hispanic households are more likely to struggle with poverty than Asian or White households and are more likely to use food pantries. Culturally-relevant food education is important for everyone, especially the organizations serving diverse communities. A food bank in Maine with a large number of Latinx clients supplied cornmeal, but community members noted that you can’t use that to make tortillas, you need Maseca. In an interview with Twin Cities PBS, Sophia Lenarz-Coy of The Food Group remarked that “[food access organizations] need to really make that food shelf experience as welcoming as possible to people of all sorts of different backgrounds…whether you feel seen as a person, whether you feel your culture is reflected in the food that’s available, those things are just so important.” 

Providing culturally relevant foods to community members through access organizations like food pantries can also help diverse low-income families prepare familiar home-cooked meals with ingredients that they may not be able to otherwise find or afford. Foods like “taro, yams, plantains, green bananas, fish, lamb, coconut milk, spam, flour, Karo’s rice, sardines, and corned beef…lentils, pinto beans, black beans…serrano peppers, [and] chili peppers,” are present in many culturally important dishes that allow individuals to reconnect to their heritage or pass it on through food. Centering food literacy in ways that reflect people’s cultural backgrounds may make it more likely that healthy eating choices stick, and culturally relevant dietary guidelines for disease management or prevention help ensure that communities of various ethnicities see better long-term health outcomes. 

The social and health-related costs of food 

An integral piece of food literacy is understanding the true cost of food. The Rockefeller Foundation’s ‘True Cost of Food Report – Measuring What Matters to Transform the US Food System’ sheds light on how the food system impacts our health, the environment, biodiversity, livelihoods, and much more. Americans spent $1.1 trillion on food in 2019. However, this report finds that the true cost of food for American consumers is at least $3.2 trillion per year when accounting for both “the cost of producing, processing, retailing, and wholesaling” our food, AND “the cost of healthcare for the millions who fall ill with diet-related diseases” and “the present and future costs of the food system’s contributions to water and air pollution, reduced biodiversity, and greenhouse gas emissions, which cause climate change.” 

Another essential piece of food literacy is understanding that the true cost of food disproportionately affects people of color. These individuals are more likely to work for poverty wages in food production and service jobs, lack access to clean water or sanitation, and suffer disproportionately from diet related diseases. If we hope to cultivate a food culture that is truly just, sustainable, and nourishing for all, we must catalyze change through key culturally relevant food literacy efforts—not only to educate our children, but also to reach governments, advocates, corporations, and individuals in the community, as food is central to all. In the words of Real Food Real Stories, “all food is a gift. It holds the possibility to nurture positive relationships of all kinds and grow our collective power. The complexity of our world and dynamic relationships have been reduced to ‘transactions,’ ‘resources,’ and ‘commodities,’ as our understanding of a shared food culture has been displaced by one of an industrialized food system. But, together we can reclaim this story to cultivate a food culture that offers real nourishment, for all people. The story of food is the story of us, which means we get to change it.”

Via Calum Lewis on Unsplash

Get involved in Colorado!

There are many ways to get involved in boosting culturally relevant food literacy. First, focus on your circle of friends and family. Ensuring everyone thinks about the impact of their food choices is the basis of cultivating changes for our greater societal food literacy. Do research! Look into the health, environmental, and social impacts of the foods you and your family eat the most. Have conversations about how food choices nourish our bodies, or how they impact the environment, or the labor conditions under which certain foods are produced. 

If you work or volunteer at a food pantry or other access organization, ask about what initiatives are in place to get feedback from the communities they serve about which foods they need the most. Do they talk to their clients about what they need to cook the meals that are important to them? Do they ask donors to provide culturally relevant donations? Do they have initiatives to boost food literacy in their community? For some organizations, cultural relevance might have taken a backseat to just getting any types of food out to communities, but these conversations can shed light on the importance of including different items in their stocks. 

In Colorado, the Pueblo Food Project has a Food and Farm Literacy and Education Working Group that encourages community residents to become active participants in their local food system. They ensure that folks of all levels of food familiarity can be included, and make sure that all sponsored activities are low- or no-cost, accessible by transit, and conducted in multiple languages. You can get involved by emailing them! 

Several food access organizations in Colorado focus on culturally relevant foods for their clients. Kaizen Food Rescue was founded by Thai Nguyen, a refugee, who understands the importance of culturally appropriate foods, and the organization “aims to prevent food waste, improve food justice and health equity” in Denver. You can donate or volunteer—any experience level is accepted. Yu Meh Food Share is a food access program run by the Denver refugee community as an initiative of Project Worthmore. They aim to “foster community, self-sufficiency and increase quality of life among Denver-area refugees,” and the Food Share focuses on distributing fresh and organic produce, proteins, and milks while reducing waste in the food supply chain. You can donate on their website.

Nourish Colorado also leads efforts on food literacy for institutions like schools to provide more nutritious meals for students. Their program LoProCO hosts workshops and trainings for culinary staff, and also fosters connections to local food producers to strengthen the Colorado food system. Their work in food literacy and nutritious food access through the Colorado Nutrition Incentive Program has also resulted in 84% of participants increasing produce consumption in their household. You can get involved here!

There are a lot of things that need to change to make our food system healthier and more equitable, but there are a lot of fantastic organizations and individuals working on improvements in Colorado and nationwide! We are grateful to those of you who’ve joined us on this summer learning journey, and hope that you take action for the parts of the food system you feel called to get involved with. We would also like to thank Nourish Colorado for giving us a platform to share knowledge about the parts of the food system we’re all passionate about. 

Here’s to rooting down in community, and rising up stronger together! 

– The MENV graduate student team: Lindsey, Cole, Sarah, Liz, Elias, Olivia, and Hannah

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