My TEDx Talk: Food Literacy For Children: Part I

On Saturday November 16, 2013, I gave a TEDx Talk to an auditorium full of high school students at the Ontario Science Centre.

TEDx Talk
Food Literacy: Equal to Math, Science and Languages? Um, yes!
Photo courtesy: Nicholas Jones

The theme of this year’s talks was: “Discover”. The speakers were each asked to fill in the blank after the theme word and give their talk around those combination of words. I filled in my own with “Yourself” and in the months leading up to the big day I meditated on the meaning of that for me.

Discover “_____________”
Photo courtesy: Nicholas Jones

My talk was much more personal than I had originally intended. In fact, during my first rehearsal at Stone Soup Innovation Lab, I veered away from the most uncomfortable bits of my past, speaking stiffly in generalities about food literacy, but the great intuitive speaking coach, Kate Hodgson, founder of IKommunications, gently guided me back to the path. She had convinced me that the best way to get my message across was to speak from the bowels of my experience: and this has always been about growing up ass poor and hungry in one of the poorest urban neighbourhoods of our country: the Jane & Finch housing projects. So, when the time came to give my talk (and in precisely seventeen minutes)  I told the story of how I came to discover my self and my defining passions, through poverty and hunger.

They listened
They came to listen.
Photo courtesy: Nicholas Jones

I probed into some painful moments, spoke about the raw emotion I felt during those months when the social assistance cheque that my single mother of three children qualified for never materialized in the mail. The truth was that sometimes when things got really bad, I would wander over to the Jane and Finch mall with my friends to steal. They stole the latest Adidas sneakers and I stole food for me and my family.

Price Chopper
Price Chopper

And it was not nutritious food I stole, unless, like so many other children around the world, you were led to believe what the creators of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, Chef Boyardee’s Beefaroni or Dinty Moore Chicken Pot Pies would have you believe through their commercials: that if you didn’t consume these products all the time, your happiness (not to speak of your health) would spiral irretrievably into some heaving bottomless pit.

My family felt the pinch during the holiday seasons, especially around Christmas. From where we sat, in a drafty and (unintended) minimalist concrete tenement living room, and skewed through the rose-tinted lenses of our television set, Christmas was a time of bounty and excess for other people: of golden brown Franken-turkeys and mountains of perfectly-wrapped gifts under a well-lit tree, as an over-extended family of impossibly good-looking white folk lingered about in their wool turtlenecks, ready to burst into rounds of The Little Drummer Boy. No such Christmases for us. SPAM pizza if we were lucky, and we were not always so lucky.

All I Want For Christmas...
All I Want For Christmas…

There was the one Christmas when I was sixteen years old. My mother had taken my younger sister and brother to a Bible retreat north of Toronto. For reasons I can no longer recall, I found myself alone at home that Christmas eve. It may have been a fight I had had with my mother, a common rite of passage at the time, but I cannot be certain. As per usual, not a creature was stirring and not a crumb in the house,  so I put on my coat and ventured out to the local convenience store. The shop owner and I eyed each other warily (although he must have been a bit confused as to why I was looking at him as though he was the thief. I have, over the years, routinely laughed to myself as I imagined him interrogating himself at the end of the night for stealing something from his own shop, like some crazed character out of Kafka, unrelenting until he got to the bottom of a crime he did not commit). I hung around the back part of the shop, where the drink fridge and ice cream freezers were located. When he was distracted by a couple who came to purchase cigarettes, I slipped a Swanson’s frozen turkey dinner under my coat,  fitting snugly (if a bit icily) between my arm and ribs. I went home and put my Christmas turkey into the microwave. It was no It’s A Wonderful Life, but I must have felt some stirring of the holiday spirit.

The self-probing that led me to my TED talk affected me more than I thought it would. I came to have a multifaceted understanding about the nature of food literacy; this by living through it, I realized, and not gleaned from some book. I had developed, surprisingly, a nuanced approach to my relationship with food and came to the following conclusions: food literacy is not merely about how to balance a healthy diet by following Canada’s Food Guide. Or about describing the difference between broccoli and pizza. At its core, it’s also about understanding how industrialization and commercial greed undermines and exploits our visceral connection to earth’s bounty. Why many genetically modified products are created and subsidized to be more affordable than what is grown and raised naturally. It’s also about food insecurity and injustice and why people are made to suffer needlessly when they could so easily be given the tools to understand the conditions around what they are told to eat.

People are starving to death in developing countries because they have no access to all our “waste”, this I am told repeatedly and with too much well-intentioned, but misguided passion. There is nothing I can do about it. Except this: arm myself with better tools of understanding my situation and pass what I have learned onto others. Then repeat. The tragic issues around food shortage in some exotic place (read: the Other’s problem), thousands of miles away, cannot ever, EVER, be overcome until we keep the diseases of waste and hunger and poverty close to home, let our children be infected by it; unless we decide for ourselves, once and for all, that a child who starves over there is no different than the child who is kept ignorant of why it is happening in a country like our own.

Food literacy. Make it mandatory. Teach it in every grade. Like Math and Science and Language. Like Compassion. Costs almost nothing.

The journey to discover- and overcome- food illiteracy wasn’t easy for me. And it’s not easy for anyone else when there is no test they have to pass because there is no class they ever have to attend to learn about it. And therefore, without education to arm us, the journey to help others overcome it is all the more daunting. But it has to be done; like homework or the Herculean effort required to truly love another (especially the “stranger” on the other side of the pond)- it just simply has to be done. I have chosen to do this, but I know I am not alone. In this tiny blog at the corner of this place and that, somewhere in the increasingly expanding blogosphere, real people are standing by me, shouting their support (I heard it at the Science Centre), some of them now speaking to their teachers and Principals and parents. They are doing this to usher us closer to a time that they- and their future children- deserve; a time when people like me will no longer be required to stand on some virtual corner talking about this easily-remedied problem.

*     *     *

My TEDx Talk is here.


2 Comments on “My TEDx Talk: Food Literacy For Children: Part I

  1. BRAVO, Sang. This is the most powerful piece about food I’ve read in a very long time. I recently explored the history and cultural significance of the potato in Ireland – and what I learned about it deeply moved me – just as your post has. I can’t wait to watch your TED talk. Keep doing what you’re doing in our community. And thank you for the inspiration.

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