Food Literacy Center teaches kids more than healthy eating
By Jessica Laskey
Felicia James likes mushrooms. She really, really likes mushrooms.
“They’re dear to my heart,” she says. “I just happen to really like them. I’ve been Team Mushroom for the last few years.”
James is planning to vote for her favorite fungi again this year as part of Food Literacy Center’s Veggie of the Year, an annual contest during Food Literacy Month in September where students and the public vote for their favorite vegetable and partake in events that include cooking demonstrations with local chefs.
James, who loves healthy eating, is in good company as board chair of Food Literacy Center. The organization has been “inspiring kids to eat their vegetables” for more than 10 years through classes on cooking, nutrition, gardening and active play in low-income elementary schools throughout the Sacramento City Unified School District. With weekly afterschool programs, students learn fruit and vegetable appreciation, how to read nutrition labels, cooking skills and the environmental impacts of food choices.
“Our mission is about reaching our most vulnerable students to give them information and tools to have ownership over their health and nutritional needs,” says James, who joined the board in 2020 and was asked to serve as chair the following year. “They are kids, so some of their actions are limited, but we hope that when they’re faced with choices, they have the information to benefit themselves.”
James took up her board position at an interesting time for the nonprofit. After years of fundraising, Food Literacy Center recently broke ground on Floyd Farms, a state-of-the-art cooking school on 2.5 acres adjacent to Leataata Floyd Elementary School.
The 5,000-square-foot building features a cooking school where more than 1,000 students a week will learn to cook healthy meals, a prep kitchen where staff and volunteers can prepare food for afterschool programs, training and office space, and a 1-acre urban farm and garden that will serve as an outdoor classroom.
“The cooking school is a two-in-one,” James says. “It’s a kitchen space and teaching space. Kids can learn how to grow the vegetables they’re then going to prepare in the kitchen, which helps reinforce self-sufficiency.
“We look up to the big culinary schools. What do students at culinary school learn? How to prepare foods, what flavors go together, the benefit of certain foods, presentation. These students learn that as well, but they’re not doing it to serve someone at a fancy restaurant, they’re doing it to take the information back to their families and help them make better choices.”
A Stanford-trained civil engineer specializing in water management, James is especially excited about Food Literacy Center’s hands-on STEM learning.
“I’m very interested in linking STEM education to everyday life—all the science and math around a recipe, the science and biology of food ingredients and nutrition, the biology and botany components of growing fruits and vegetables by understanding soil structure. A vegetable is not this inanimate thing, it’s a living organism,” she says. “Who knows what career path that sparks in a child?”
The cooking school opens this fall and hopes to expand beyond SCUSD and Robla School District, which joined this spring. Floyd Farms will offer community and family classes on cooking, nutrition, food science, biology, history, culture through cuisine and garden education, including plant biology and compost.
“It’s about nurturing the mind, not just the body,” James says. “We’re opening up the possibility of what these kids want to be and do when they grow up. It’s not just about, ‘I get to eat something.’ It’s about understanding soil health, that there are different varieties of carrots—that peas are a fruit! If it wasn’t for Food Literacy Center, that bit of information would have passed me by.”
For more information, visit foodliteracycenter.org.
Jessica Laskey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento.