My insight into food has always been rooted in what I was taught in school. Public education in the U.S. taught me to balance what I ate in terms of the food pyramid. It stated that I consume large portions of grains and just a small amount of sugar and fats.
I shifted this perspective when I moved to Kuwait in 2006. While there I attended a private school that required health as a core subject. Within the class we were taught to balance our diet and have insight on what we eat. Cultural perspective and scientific reasoning were heavily relayed to us. Thus, food became more than fuel we ingest to keep ourselves on the move. I jumped to eating foods without any corn-based additives and all foods that were non-GMO. Years later, I would become vegan and try to source my food locally. I have since switched back to an omnivorous diet, but my roots remain. I treat food as a cultural item and understand how it intersects with a healthy life.
Culture is fostered at an early age. In society today, kids spend most of their time at school. This environment fosters a communal culture, one aspect of which is food. Food culture deeply affects how students react to food and develops their thoughts on healthy diets. Understanding how food culture is promoted in schools will help us to identify emerging health and diet trends. This blog entry provides some insight into how Albuquerque Public Schools (APS) interpret and create their culture of food.
Albuquerque Public Schools have long used nutritional guidelines provided by the federal government. Nutritional initiatives fall under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and these nutritional guidelines are often shared with the public in the form of an infographic. The infographic has undergone various iterations over the past century, from pie charts to the more recent food pyramid. The differences between the 1992 food pyramid and the MyPlate model illustrate how the guidelines have evolved. In the MyPlate model, fats, sugars, and oils have been eliminated and what used to be termed meats has been replaced by protein. In addition, serving sizes and the pyramid shape have changed into recognizable sizes on a dinner plate. The federal guidelines fundamentally change how students talk about food. With meats shifted more broadly to protein, other foods such as nuts, seeds, and beans are seen as valuable assets to a plate. This cultural shift makes dietary preferences such as vegetarian an understandable option.
Numerous program have been set up to support health and nutrition in low income communities. One of these federal initiatives is FoodCorps, which provides service members to public schools and community organizations in high-need states. Service members implement a three-part initiative to promote hands-on learning, a balanced diet, and general health education. FoodCorps services seventeen states and the District of Columbia, including New Mexico.
In New Mexico, FoodCorps supports seven service sites. Three of these sites are in the Albuquerque metropolitan area, and include La Plazita Institute, the Southwest Organizing Project and the Albuquerque Public School Gardens. Mallory Garcia holds the position as APS School Gardens coordinator. In an interview, she stated that her main role facilitates interactions between individual schools and local companies. She believes that student gardens engender a form of ownership among students that tend them. With the earned knowledge and dedication, they are more likely to know and care about the food they eat. However, many student gardens face issues of long-term leadership and access to funding. These issues are mitigated by community inclusion and the support of facilitators like Garcia.
Garcia has connected multiple partners together to provide resources to individual schools. Albuquerque Academy is one of those resources. This private school maintains the Desert Oasis Teaching (DOT) Gardens. Its original focus was centered on xeriscaping and understanding local desert flora. Tiana Baca is the garden manager for the DOT gardens. When interviewed, Baca expressed that the DOT gardens provide multiple functions to both the school and the wider public. They grow seedlings in a greenhouse on campus, and provide them to other schools in the area, including Lavaland Elementary School. Baca noted that many students, especially in elementary, have trouble growing plants from seeds. “Giving students sprouts builds their confidence because they can see it,” Baca stated. The DOT Garden also offers biweekly on-campus volunteer opportunities where volunteers learn a variety of gardening methods. These lessons include management of raised beds, soil health, and compost. WaterSmart gardening workshops, supported by the local Water Utility Authority, are also offered free to the public. These workshops and volunteer opportunities help foster community engagement and provide an exciting hands-on learning experience.
Albuquerque is a mixing pot of many unique cultures. Food culture is fostered in many ways, from those supported by the USDA to community initiatives such as the DOT Gardens. How we craft the culture of food is vital to the health of future generations and their communities.