Embedding Anti-Racist Principles in School Food Programming
Updated: Dec 5, 2020
The Coalition for Healthy School Food organized two panel discussions during Food Secure Canada’s Cultivating Change event in November 2020. You can watch or listen to the first session from November 13th here. This discussion looked at how to embed anti-racist principles in school food programming with an engaging panel that shared insights from their experiences with school meal programs, school gardens and school food literacy programs.
The session was moderated by Colin Dring, PhD Candidate, University of British Columbia with
Utcha Sawyers, Executive Director of East Scarborough Boys and Girls Club
Shiba Anjum, volunteer coordinator for Oakwood Public School’s salad bar
Suman Roy, Executive Director of Meal Exchange
Ekow Stone, School Grown Youth Engagement Coordinator with FoodShare Toronto
Wendie Wilson, Co-founder and educator of the African Nova Scotian Freedom School
Colin started things off by reminding attendees that racism is often thought of in simple terms, as an explicit phenomena of hate; yet it has shifted for many to include feelings of avoidance and discomfort, and that an implicit racial bias impacts our collective understandings, actions and decisions.
While exploring principles that guide anti-racism work in school food programs, Colin shared that we also want to keep this definition in mind:
Anti-racism is the active process of identifying and eliminating racism by changing systems, the organizational structures, policies and practices, as well as attitudes, so that power is fundamentally redistributed and shared equitably.
Utcha Sawyers, Executive Director of East Scarborough Boys and Girls Club | 00:9:18 (time presentation begins in recording)
Utcha began by summarizing the work that she has been doing over the past 20 years centred around anti-racism, food security and food justice. This work includes founding an African-centred school in Toronto, and, for the last three years, leading the East Scarborough Boys and Girls Club (ESBGC) as Executive Director. While pointing to higher rates of food insecurity among Black and Indigenous peoples, even more so during COVID, Utcha says that she made it a goal for herself years ago to acknowledge and dismantle racism embedded in our social structures.
Utcha then explained some ways the ESBGC is doing this work: the Club has developed an edible classroom to deliver food literacy education with an emphasis on culturally-appropriate foods. In their community, the predominant population of youth that are most marginalized are Black and Indigenous youth, and 60% of the youth who are Indigenous are also Black Canadian, so the Club has looked at how to bring culture together to support the food security needs of local children. They’ve developed a food policy guideline for how to structure their food, and they’ve also purchased a new building to animate an incubator for youth around culinary development, where they will work to dismantle the embedded and internalized oppression that Black and Indigenous youth have faced historically around agriculture and food access.
“When we look at children in school spaces, and how we can create more integrated spaces that are reflective of cultural competencies that reflect the children that are being served, I think it’s important for us to make sure that the community is at the table from the onset,” Utcha says (00:18:25). “Anyone will know, working with me over the years, it’s very important for us to have the voice.”
Utcha stressed the need for inclusive processes, and that while policy change is necessary, the day-to-day work that needs to be done around anti-racism is a personal and collective work that is ongoing.
Shiba Anjum, volunteer coordinator for Oakwood Public School’s salad bar | 00:22:00
Shiba offered a glimpse into the popular salad bar program at Oakwood Public School, where she is the volunteer coordinator. This farm to school salad bar program is intended to get children and youth excited about healthy food, and it can increase access to healthy food. While the lunch costs $3 per student, the school sponsors 25-35 students. Gentrification in their community, Shiba notes, is leading to increased disparities among students attending the school.
In a slide presentation, Shiba shared how their school is addressing the needs of racialized children: accommodate, include, acknowledge, connect. The salad bar program has accommodated cultural dietary restrictions, offering every student Halal options, for instance. The program also includes a variety of cultural foods and vendors, which the students have really embraced. The program acknowledges religious traditions and cultural celebrations through food (e.g. celebrating Chinese New Year), and they have connected various cultural traditions to the curriculum (their breakfast program coordinator worked with some teachers to invite parents into the classroom to share lessons on cultural traditions).
Toward the end of her presentation, Shiba emphasized the importance of parental and community involvement, quoting that “people don’t know what they don’t know.” Shiba herself, for instance, became the ‘in-house expert’ on Halal foods, bringing that knowledge into the school community. Relationships and connections truly enrich these programs, while teaching inclusivity.
Suman Roy, Executive Director of Meal Exchange | 00:30.40
Suman brought a post-secondary voice to the table, as Executive Director of Meal Exchange, a charity that works to increase access to good food on campuses from coast to coast to coast. Among other initiatives, Meal Exchange runs a Good Food Campus Program, a Food Justice Learning Circle, and they are also in the early stages of working with Health Canada to examine Canada’s Food Guide.
While Suman sees some progress in the food guide’s latest changes, he says it does not reflect the cultural diversity within Canada. Meal Exchange still finds themselves advocating for Halal options in some cafeterias, just as one problematic example. Further discussion on Canada’s Food Guide occurs in the Q&A, where Utcha also shared that we have to make sure that every learning tool, including the food guide, is culturally respective, reflective and competent.
When we look at embedding anti-racist principles, Suman’s key message was to “focus on the systematic changes and not just tokenism.” We need more meaningful change from leaders and decision-makers.
Ekow Stone, School Grown Youth Engagement Coordinator with FoodShare Toronto | 00:36:50
As a School Grown Youth Engagement Coordinator for FoodShare Toronto, Ekow provided an overview of FoodShare’s School Grown program, which offers students in Toronto numerous experiential food education opportunities, as well as employment opportunities, while bringing food justice issues to the forefront. In general, their programs work to increase access to good food and empower students to grow their own food, while analyzing systems of discrimination that can bar people from accessing culturally-relevant food.
At their core, these are anti-oppression and anti-racist programs, Ekow explains, before pointing out the immense complexities in embedding anti-racist principles in institutions where “racism is sort of the ocean in which they swim in” (00:42:49).
Ekow describes School Grown as a sanctuary from the racism that might exist elsewhere in school systems.
“Not only are anti-racist values at the core of School Grown, but it’s also not just anti-racism, but it is pro-Black, it is pro-Indigenous, it is pro-Queer,” Ekow shares, (00:45:10). “And so we hold space for youth that we work with, who might in their other experiences with the school system, or employment in general, find those aspects of their lived experience about their identity being repressed or stigmatized or having to navigate in a certain way, and we just really hold space and support youth development, engagement and education through food.”
Wendie Wilson, Co-founder and educator of the African Nova Scotian Freedom School | 00:46:30
As a co-founder of and educator at the African Nova Scotian Freedom School, Wendie brought the perspective of a public school educator, who knows firsthand how a balanced diet can affect children’s emotional, physical, cognitive, mental and academic success.
Wendie highlighted how the absence of a collective school food program results in the increased consumption of unhealthy, highly processed foods that lack nutrients, thus impacting students’ health, particularly vulnerable students.
“The absence of a school food program is problematic in itself and it’s embedded in racism and layered in disadvantage,” Wendie shares (00:47:07).
Having access to healthy food plays a role in the achievement gap, Wendie reminds us, and while a National School Food Program won’t necessarily close this gap, it will certainly narrow it. And even better if these programs can be extended into the broader community.
Colin Dring, PhD Candidate, University of British Columbia | 00:50:50
Before moving into the Q&A portion of this session, Colin summarized his PhD work on planning for food systems, which draws heavily on food justice and food sovereignty work. Colin’s team has been looking at the role of the academe in supporting educational initiatives to take on anti-racist and decolonial processes within their own respective spaces.
Through work with food policy councils, Colin’s team has come up with four broad principles for cultural inclusion:
Outlining cultural inclusion and anti-racist goals
Making modes of participation and decision-making public
Understanding how positionality shapes priorities
Actively attending to the role of race, power, and structural oppression and the relation with cultural inclusion
Embedding a compassionate, healing-centred approach to school-food practice
Ensuring dissent and counter-narratives
Finding different spaces to do work, and
Most importantly, actively seeking out and building relationships
Colin also outlined Principles for Anti-Racist Education:
Identifying or making visible systemic oppression
Getting ready to do the work
Transforming structural and systemic inequalities.
Fundamentally what we’re addressing here, Colin explains, is white supremacy culture, which centres whiteness (e.g. what food is good or bad) and reinforces systematic racial inequality.
The last half-hour moved into a reflective Q&A, which included panelists discussing how we can advance and prioritize this work, sharing thoughts such as: the need to understand the cultural competencies and capacity of your institution, holding those in power accountable, a redistribution of resources and support, leaving space at the table for marginalized voices, and everyone doing their part.
“The onus is not only on us to be the voice,” Shiba shares (1:11:05), “the onus is on our allies too, that they are our allies and they are able to hear when we speak.”
Thank you deeply to Colin Dring, Utcha Sawyers, Shiba Anjum, Suman Roy, Ekow Stone and Wendie Wilson for sharing their knowledge and experiences with us on this critical topic. Above are only brief summaries of some of the important learnings shared — you can view the full video recording at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lTK4UkVVNiE.