Finding Your Voice Through Food

Karen Cherubini's third graders accepted the EPA's challenge to reduce their carbon footprint by making different food choices. They also learned how asking questions can change your life. This is Karen’s story.

I live and teach in Philadelphia, and aspire to be a small piece of a big change that could potentially redefine the food industry as we know it. I grow food in an urban community garden plot and shop at the farmers market. However, the more I learn about our food industry, the more I feel like a postcard I keep on my desk, “There is an alarming increase in the number of things I know nothing about.”

I find an increasing urgency to educate myself about the choices I have involving food dollars. As a professional educator, it is also my job to inform others and help them inform themselves. I had just begun reading Barbara Kingsolver’s, “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” (read an excerpt) when a colleague literally dropped in my lap the opportunity to involve my students in positive change: the EPA contest. The challenge put forth by the EPA was to “reduce your class carbon footprint” in 21 days. Inspired by Kingsolver’s book, I turned to food; it was a perfect fit. Earlier in our school year we discussed the idea of stewardship, of taking responsibility for our actions and the state of our environment, and the students were ready for the challenge.

Kids researching local food, Photo by Andrea L'Tainen spacer
Kids researching local food, Photo by Andrea L'Tainen
Kids researching local food, Photo by Andrea L'Tainen
Sophie, Tara, and Gabe research local food. Photos by Andrea L'Tainen.

“Meeting for learning” is a Quaker phrase that we use in the classroom at the Germantown Friends School, where I teach lower school science. The phrase refers to an education that values equality and community in the classroom. Regardless of role, teacher or student, each person’s ideas are listened to and respected. After many conversations with my students, the consensus was to reduce the number of miles our food travels to our kitchens.

The task was not as easy as it sounds, but I knew the kids had the passion and work ethic for a job that included convincing parents how to spend their money. Buying more local, organic, and unprocessed foods was a big change for many. Several families in the school are already living sustainable lifestyles. For example, the shortest distance food traveled to the kitchen table was, “blueberries from my backyard.”

We crafted a letter to parents explaining the project and our goal: “to find food that minimizes the dependence on fossil fuels.” Pantries, fridges, and shopping bags were inspected to find out where each item was grown or made. Students recorded their findings, and we figured out the total carbon footprint using the Carbon Footprint Calculator (based on a single-passenger air travel, one-way). In just three weeks, 51 students reduced their carbon footprint by 32 metric tonnes just by being aware of where our food was coming from.

Dear EPA,
I used to get my oranges from Ecuador and I didn’t pay any attention to where it came from but now I do. Now I get my oranges from Wyck farms in Pennsylvania. My parents try to notice too.
— Isaac

One third grader was very concerned that she would have to give up bananas. I told her that I would not be giving up my bananas and that I would never ask her to do so. An audible sigh of relief rose up from the entire class. Children are so literal that it is hard for them to make changes in small steps; they want to change the world all at once. Once they narrowed their focus, saving the world one apple at a time seemed much more manageable than trying to be a green super-hero. They simply realized that the food in one person’s lunch could come from five different continents. They realized what a difference it would make if our food was grown or made locally instead. Finally, and, perhaps, most importantly, they realized that when they question the status quo, the answers that emerge may make more sense than the existing system. Hopefully the experience will change the way they view authority and they will continue to ask questions their whole lives.

After winning second place in the EPA-sponsored contest, the students have harnessed their energy and excitement into a 4th grade Environmental Action Club (EAC). Their ideas for the fall include letter-writing campaigns, meat industry animal right’s advocacy, and taking on the marketing standard that places famous children’s characters on packaging for products that lead children down a path of ill health.

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