“Raise your hand if your grandparents were born in a different country,” I ask a classroom of 4th graders at Bruce Vento Elementary. “Raise your hand if your parents were born in a different country,” I continue, encouraging students to look around the room at their peers. Finally, I ask if any students in the class were born in a different country. After sharing where we come from, we are reminded of the diversity of backgrounds and experiences in the classroom. What does any of this have to do with food? “Immigrants and refugees often bring the foods they know how to grow and cook to our country when they move here,” I say to the class, “As a result, we get to experience a rich array of foods and cuisines.”
This is how we open our winter unit, “Gifts from Many Cultures.” At every classroom I visited this winter, hands shot up in the air for each opening statement. By asking students about their family histories, we launch into a four-lesson series that celebrates the grains, beans, potatoes, and fruits that have come to the US from around the world. For example, in the lesson “Potatoes, More than Fries,” we explore the world travels of the potato – how it began in the Andes mountains of Peru, sailed to Europe with explorers, fell victim to a blight in Ireland, and came to the United States with Irish immigrants in 1850. This February, as we looked at a sample of the 4,000 varieties of potatoes, one 4th grader exclaimed, “My family eats yams!” She proceeded to tell the class exactly how her family cooks yams and once grew them in Nigeria. The previous week, as we looked at beans and glued them to their place of origin on a map of the world, one teaching assistant shared with me his family’s way of eating black-eyed-peas in a southern dish. And as we prepared a rainbow salsa to eat in a corn tortilla, one 3rd grade Mexican student excitedly told me, “My family eats those exact same tortillas!”
At a time when immigrants and refugees have become subjects of contention in the public sphere, I am grateful to have spent the winter celebrating these very populations in classrooms around the Twin Cities. Whether trying the Indian dish of dhal or biting into a Mejdool date, students from kindergarten through 5th grade have held up multiculturalism as a gift.
I recently read a parable that keeps me grounded in the midst of overwhelming political tension. In this parable as related by Will Allen in his book The Good Food Revolution, a man comes upon a bird by the side of a road. The bird is lying on his back, his feet sticking straight up. When asked by the man what she is doing, the bird replies, “I heard that the sky is falling and I want to hold it up.” The man laughs at the bird and says, “You believe that you can hold up the whole sky?” “No,” the bird replies, “but one does what one can.”