Oh How Stories Can Inspire: Using Narrative to Champion Healthy Food Access

Niisoja TortoEmerson, Policy

Above: Niisoja Torto, 27th Class Emerson Fellow.

In college, I organized a trip with some of my classmates to New Orleans. No, sadly, it wasn’t for Mardi Gras. We were there to learn firsthand about topics ranging from local environmental justice initiatives to the legacy of Hurricane Katrina. Along the way, we landed at Langston Hughes Academy, an elementary school whose signature Edible Schoolyard New Orleans program elevates food and nutrition education as one of the school’s academic priorities.

From the flourishing garden by the playground to the resident pig that probably weighed as much as me, the school’s unique setup piqued my curiosity. I listened closely as teachers described the impact of the school’s food education curriculum on students and families in the community. Their personal anecdotes about students that had started gardens at home or families choosing healthier options when they were able resonated with me.

I couldn’t help but think about how each story connected to the broader context: what did those stories say about the potential benefits of improving food education in schools nationally? How different would my experience with healthy foods have been had I received robust food education lessons in school?  When I left New Orleans, I wouldn’t have suspected that, two years later, I’d be connecting stories about the effects of food education in school to its broader implications as an Emerson National Hunger Fellow working with FoodCorps’ policy team.

FoodCorps and its AmeriCorps service members connect kids in schools to healthy foods by conducting hands-on food education, promoting healthy school meals, and inspiring a school-wide culture of health. Its policy team works to leverage the lessons from the on-the-ground experiences of service members to catalyze change that benefits children and communities across the country. It’s this charge that inspires much of my work on the team today to make the case for including food education in our nation’s schools and how it fits into broader farm to school policy.

If I could make the case for farm to school initiatives to you in two sentences, I’d say: they benefit farmers by opening up new market opportunities; children by exposing them to healthier and fresher foods; and communities by building local economies with local dollars. Food education—by building the excitement among kids to actually want and eat local, healthy foods—is key to making farm to school initiatives work.

Did I convince you? Well, when I first heard the idea pitched to me, I understood it in principle, but I wouldn’t say it was awe-inspiring. It was after I started interviewing people on the ground in rural northern Michigan—people like Chef Nathan Bates of Boyne Falls Public Schools—and hearing stories about their experiences with farm to school initiatives and food education that I really became excited about it.

I think of a story Chef Nathan told me about a farmer who described families coming to the farmers’ market asking for really specific microgreens, only to find out that it was because their kids had tried them for the first time at school and wouldn’t stop talking about them. Or I think about the way service members in northern Michigan turned a local farm’s donation of goat cheese into a conversation about local foods and about how trying unfamiliar foods can make us anxious—the effect of which was a class full of students eager to try their first ever goat cheese by the end of the lesson.

Hearing from service members, community partners, and Chef Nathan, I really began to see how food education, farm to school initiatives, healthy school meals, and more all fit together, and, more importantly, why they are meaningful for real people.

The experience of gleaning stories from people on the ground and connecting them to the policy context through writing and presentations with my placement at FoodCorps has reminded me about the power of stories. Not only do firsthand experiences add nuance to our understanding of issues, but they also help us understand impact in a different, more personal way.

So now, if you give me just two sentences to make the case for food education and farm to school, maybe I’ll give you the cut and dried answer I gave above. But, if you have more time, I’ll tell you about Chef Nathan or our FoodCorps service members in Michigan, adding some statistics for good measure along the way. It’s the power of stories like theirs that excites me about the prospect of my future career in medicine—a career that will afford me that same opportunity to hear people’s stories and amplify them in important policy conversations.

Until the next story!

See this story to learn more about how Chef Nathan, community partners and FoodCorps service members are connecting kids in Michigan to healthy food.

About the Authors

Torto headshot

Niisoja Torto

Emerson Fellow

Niisoja graduated from Duke University, where he studied public policy with a focus on health and nutrition policy. His Ghanaian heritage and experience growing up in Florida inform his interest in equity issues. Niisoja’s particular passion for food and nutrition solidified with his senior thesis that explored the role of food assistance in addressing overweight and obesity. He has conducted heart disease community-based research in rural central Uganda, where he worked alongside community health champions to develop a heart disease prevention program that still runs today. Niisoja has also provided high-level nutrition policy support as an intern at the World Health Organization headquarters in Geneva, where he authored the main text of a report of the UN Secretary-General.

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