September happens to be Food Literacy Month and on this very last day of September I’m so pleased to introduce you to a champion of children’s food literacy, Philip Lee.
I “met” Lee on Twitter a few weeks ago and then visited the website of his publishing house, READERS to EATERS. I learned that he runs the company along with his food ethnographer wife, June Jo Lee, and that the truly beautiful books they publish are devoted exclusively to teaching children food literacy.
I believe investing children with a sense of ownership about the food they eat is one of the most important things we can do to change our food system. (A few years ago, I even created my own rhyming kid’s video about food, “Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory!”) Lee was kind enough to let me interview him for The Lunch Tray, and here’s our recent Q & A:
TLT: What was the pivotal moment (or moments) when you decided to shift your entire career to focus to children and food literacy?
PL: I’ve been a children’s book publisher for almost 25 years (I was the publisher of Lee & Low Books in New York, which I co-founded in 1991.) I used to believe that my job was to publish good books, match the right child with the right book, and then we would help create a reader.
In 2008, I started looking into the “achievement gap” on test score disparity among students. I spoke with policy makers at the district and state level, and they pointed out to me that the challenge in education is not one of learning or reading, but of public health: Students can’t learn if they don’t have a proper breakfast, which leads to behavioral problems and inability to concentrate in class. It made so much sense, yet I had never considered health barriers to learning until that point.
I started paying more attention to the farm-to-school movement. This was in early 2009, when Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food were hitting the bestseller list, and Michelle Obama had just planted the White House vegetable garden. It seemed to be a tipping point to the public awareness about food, so it felt like the perfect time to launch READERS to EATERS.
Our mission is to promote food literacy, so children and families can gain a better understanding of what and how we eat. It’s difficult to eat well if we don’t cook, eat in the car or in front of our desks, and have a school lunch eating time that is often less than 10 minutes.
TLT: What in particular led you to book publishing — as opposed to other endeavors or media — as a way of promoting that goal?
PL: I worked in magazine publishing (for Conde Nast) for many years before switching to children’s books. There’s permanence in books, especially children’s books. Many of the books I published over 20 years ago are still in print. If a book has a lasting theme, it can make an impact with generations of children.
I’m also amazed what a powerful tool a book can be in connecting people and communities. Washington’s governor, Jay Inslee, just proclaimed September as Food Literacy Month in the state. This is an effort initiated by READERS to EATERS, in collaboration with education, literacy, food and farm organizations. At our kickoff event at the Seattle Public Library on September 17, the heads of Seattle School Nutrition Services, school library, and school garden program all came and met each other for the first time, and what connected all these people are books! We hope that librarians will start visiting the cafeteria and garden more frequently and the same for kitchen managers and garden coordinators, finding new ideas to work together.
TLT: What do you want children to most understand about the food they eat? What do you feel most kids don’t know about food that they ought to know?
PL: I want children to understand that eating well is not hard to do. You don’t have to know the science of food to eat healthy. You just have to eat food at its peak deliciousness, which often means it’s in season and more likely to be local. Even a child can tell the difference in taste between a summer tomato and a winter tomato. I learned this about this flavor driven way of eating when I read about Alice Waters and her “delicious revolution” while researching our book, Alice Waters and the Trip to Delicious, for which she wrote the Afterword.
I also want children to know that growing and cooking food is fun. You do not need a lot of land to grow food. Start with a small pot in the kitchen and move it to the deck, the lawn, or the rooftop. Start cooking with your family and be ready to be creative.
Finally, I’d also like to remind kids that their taste buds will grow just like their body, so something they may not like to eat today may change later. Therefore always keep an open mind to try something again even if it’s not to their liking the first—or second, or third—time!
TLT: Do you feel that food literacy is really enough to immunize kids against today’s food environment — a world rife with cheap, highly processed but also highly palatable junk food and fast food? In other words, it’s great to teach kids where food comes from, but is it really enough to help guide them into making good food decisions on a lifelong basis, when there are so many societal forces pushing against that outcome?
PL: I think food literacy is a critical step toward healthy eating and to create a good food culture. By helping children understand more about what and how we eat, we can help them—and their parents—to be more informed eaters and cooks. It is also a way to spark discussions among families, friends, and communities. Food is such a universal and integral experience. Every body eats. Our food choices impact our bodies, communities and planet.
I believe by gaining knowledge and taking interest in our food system, the public has already made a dramatic impact on our food supply in a short time. Many people are making better food choices for their families, and are now demanding the same from school food. We are witnessing the growth in organic food and farmers market sales, along with decline of many fast food and processed food companies.
TLT: When you choose a food literacy book to publish, what are you looking for? What makes a book more or less likely to truly connect with kids?
PL: We want our books to give a fresh perspective on what and how we eat through good stories, beautiful writing, and a deep appreciation of food cultures. While they may have a social message, the stories have to be fun, not didactic. Just like food, kids won’t like it just because it’s “good for you.” Take Sylvia’s Spinach, that starts with a picky eater who doesn’t like spinach but ends up growing it in the school garden. As she tentatively tastes her spinach with her classmates, she realizes it’s …”not bad.” Another fun book is A Moose Boosh: A Few Choice Words About Food, a whimsical poetry collection that pokes fun at foodies while giving an insider look at our global food system.
TLT: Is there anything else you’d like to tell Lunch Tray readers?
PL: We need a diversity of food to keep our bodies healthy. The same is true about books. We need many books on the subject to create a healthy understanding of what and how we eat. Don’t just read about food, but grow and cook it too. Finally, consider how good food impacts all aspects of a child’s daily live, such as in sports, music, academics, etc. In our book Feeding the Young Athlete, author and nutrition professor Cynthia Lair reminds us that the brain is a muscle that needs to be nourished. We hope by discussing good food through sports, it gives children a new way to look at food through their daily activities.
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Many thanks to Philip Lee for coming by The Lunch Tray today! You can find a complete listing of READERS to EATERS books here.
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