Talking food justice with kids

One of the biggest things we learned last spring when my kids’ school hosted a hunger banquet (see blog posts here and here for how it worked), was how hard it is to keep the conversation about hunger and food justice going with kids without focusing solely on charity.

The low-income meal at the Hunger Banquet: plain rice

Talking about (and) making donations to a food bank or international organizations working with hunger are great things for kids and families to do—and something that naturally emerges from the experience. But I think our more important role as parents and educators is to give kids the critical thinking tools to help make long-lasting differences in the world. We need to help them understand not only what’s happening and why, but also how, as citizens of the world, they have the power to do something about it.

That means finding age-appropriate ways to talk about difficult subjects like: Why do some people even in wealthy countries still go hungry? How is it possible that we have enough food in the world to feed everyone and yet there are a billion people hungry? Why do the poor suffer more from diet-related illnesses than their wealthier neighbours?

These aren’t easy questions and many teachers and parents don’t feel equipped to deal with them (nor do most teachers have the time to find a way to fit it into their curriculum). But I think we all need to try—there is too much at stake to throw up our collective hands.

Kamla Ross McGregor, Education Co-ordinator at Toronto’s The Stop Community Food Centre has recently published a great article in Jaste (Journal for Activist Science and Technology Education) about how she and her organization have gone about integrating issues of food justice and sustainability into all of their school-age food-based programs.

At their Grade 5 workshop series, for instance, they talk about how food gets from field to table, cook a First Nations meal, share their own food traditions and learn the down and dirty about composting. But they also play games and participate in specific activities intended to get them thinking and talking about food justice. They have developed one exercise in particular called The Game of Real Life  in which children are given identities (rich, low-income, on welfare, physically challenged, etc.) and they have to try to manage within their character’s budget and also eat healthily. As you can imagine, it’s an eye-opening struggle for many of them.

Most importantly, as Ross McGregor writes in her article, it’s “about thinking critically about what kind of life is fair and just.”

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