Food literacy, the understanding that food choices affect human and planetary health, can be an important tool for building resilient individuals and communities. A combination of nutrition knowledge, culinary skill, food systems awareness, and behavioral change, food literacy is a multifaceted concept that has the power to shape local food systems.
Increasing food literacy can also help reduce health inequities, according to research from Western Michigan University and the University of Cologne. And research from Griffith University shows that schools are ideal settings for young people to learn and practice healthy dietary behaviors, and that food literacy boosts academic achievement.
“We know that if we make nutrition education hands-on and make it fun, we can engage students and get them excited about eating their veggies,” Food Literacy Center CEO Amber Stott tells Food Tank.
Around the world, organizations are using school-based culinary and agricultural programs to promote environmental stewardship and improve student health outcomes. Here are 29 organizations enriching student lives through food literacy education.
1. Ann Sullivan Centre, Peru
The Center Ann Sullivan del Peru (CASP) serves persons with disabilities and their families at every phase of life. Founded in 1979, CASP was inspired by international farm-to-school programs and built an on-site kitchen and garden for students in 2015. Students practice cooking and team-building skills, and attend classes led by some of Peru’s top chefs.
2. Bright Bites, Canada
Bright Bites is a free program designed to improve school nutrition in Ontario, Canada. Entire schools or individual classes complete activities and earn badges, and are rewarded on social media. The Cook It Up badge, for example, requires students to cook a healthy meal together. And the Green Thumb badge encourages planting an indoor or outdoor garden. Participating schools have completed cafeteria beautification projects, distributed nutrient-dense holiday recipes to families, and blended homemade hummus in their classrooms.
3. Cidades Sem Fome, Brazil
Cidades Sem Fome (Cities Without Hunger) develops sustainable agrarian projects in São Paulo, Brazil. Founded in 2004, Cidades Sem Fome teaches individuals to manage organic farming businesses and achieve financial independence. In addition to greenhouse and community garden projects, the organization builds gardens in public schools, which provide fresh food for students and create opportunities for family involvement. Cidades Sem Fome has built 38 school gardens reaching 14,506 children.
4. CultivaCiudad, Mexico
Mexican nonprofit CultivaCiudad established the Huerto Tlatelolco Urban Garden on the side of an abandoned public housing unit in 2012. Now home to a seed bank and 45 tree varieties, Huerto Tlateloclo welcomes school groups to engage in urban agriculture. Since reclaiming the space, Huerto Tlateloclo has hosted 40 school groups and special events like markets and create-your-own meal workshops.
5. Edible Garden City, Singapore
Edible Garden City designs, builds, and maintains urban gardens across Singapore. In addition to commercial properties and private residences, Edible Garden City creates outdoor classrooms at primary schools and university residence halls that feature herbs, spinach, papaya, edible flowers, and tapioca. Nature-based workshops help demystify growing food in an urban environment, and virtual programs make learning accessible for remote learners.
6. Edible Schoolyard, Global
Edible Schoolyard offers food education programs at 5,691 schools worldwide. Founded in 1995 by chef and activist Alice Waters, Edible Schoolyard uses organic school gardens and cafeterias to teach academic subjects and sustainable food principles. Students plant, harvest, and prepare their own food while learning cornerstone practices of organic farming like composting, tillage, and cover cropping. Students also visit local farms, grocers, and restaurants. Edible Schoolyard has trained more than 1,000 education leaders and impacted over 1 million students worldwide.
7) Farm to School Network, United States
The National Farm to School Network (NFSN) seeks to transform the ways young people eat and learn about food in early care and education settings. Since 2007, NFSN helps schools purchase cafeteria food from local farmers, offer experiential learning through school gardens, and develop student activities related agriculture and nutrition. NFSN also works with Native producers from Hawaii to Alaska, planting heritage crops and including traditional foods like blue corn in cafeterias to revitalize Native foodways.
8. First Nations Development Institute, United States
The First Nations Development Initiative seeks to strengthen and support Native communities in the United States. They provide a Native farm-to-school resource guide that helps Native schools introduce students to traditional foods and practices, as well as promote self-reliance and sustainability. First Nations also offers scholarships to Native college students pursuing agriculture-related fields.
9. Food and Nutrition Education in Communities, United States
Cornell University’s Food and Nutrition Education in Communities (FNEC) program provides training and curricula to improve nutrition literacy in marginalized communities. In New York, FNEC administers the federally-funded Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP) and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – Education (SNAP-Ed). In 2020, FNEC delivered EFNEP nutrition education to 7,484 students through hands-on, interactive lessons at school. FNEC also hosts independent courses teaching parents how to model healthy behaviors, increase breastfeeding awareness, and manage diabetes.
FoodCorps works with district leaders, food manufacturers, and government officials across the United States to provide sustainable school meals for students. The Flavor Bar program encourages students to experiment with condiments and flavor combinations from different cultures. The Tasty Challenge program allows students to sample ingredients prepared in different ways, then adds the most favored preparation to school lunch menus. After one year of participation, 73 percent of FoodCorps schools have measurably healthier food environments.
11. Food Literacy Center, United States
The Food Literacy Center in Sacramento, California teaches nutrition and gardening skills to children in 16 under-resourced elementary schools. Weekly after school programs teach students how to read nutrition labels and cook nourishing meals. Participants also study the environmental impact of food choices. The Food Literacy Center will open a zero net energy cooking school in 2021 that will house community and student gardens and continue integrating cooking into STEM curricula.
12. Food Literacy Project, United States
The Food Literacy Project’s Youth Community Agriculture Program (YCAP) provides food-based education for immigrant and refugee students in Louisville, Kentucky. Prioritizing students in danger of aging out of traditional high school, YCAP helps accelerate English language skills and promote food systems engagement. Cohorts have built outdoor earthen ovens and translated recipes from their countries of origin for a virtual cookbook. In the summer, Food Literacy Project offers a seven-week employment opportunity for teenagers to complete a harvest cycle, cook with local chefs, and develop entrepreneurial skills with local business owners.
13. Fresh Roots, Canada
Fresh Roots is an edible schoolyard project in Vancouver, Canada that began in 2009. The organization hosts professional development workshops for educators demonstrating how gardens promote inquiry-based learning, hone leadership skills, and excite students. Together with the Vancouver School Board, Fresh Roots established the Schoolyard Market Gardens Program in 2013 to connect students with the effort involved in farming. Harvested produce is distributed to school cafeterias, a local Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program, and nearby food security initiatives.
14. Gardeneers, United States
Founded in 2013, Gardeneers promotes racial justice and nutrition equity through school gardens in Chicago, Illinois. Custom gardens have been established at 19 schools in food insecure neighborhoods, impacting over 1,800 students. Students learn the nutritional benefits of fruits and vegetables, and bring home food they grow during the program. Gardeneers programs also encourage outdoor physical activity, and stress the importance of environmental stewardship.
15. Gitxaała Nation, Canada
Gitxaala Nation’s Community Garden and Lach Klan School work to decolonize food literacy education through a summer reading program and traditional food workshop program. With researchers from the University of British Columbia, they develop hands-on activities that integrate local Indigenous knowledge and language. Participants plant seeds, harvest seaweed, study Gitxaała Summer Foods books in English and Sm’algyax, and learn food preservation techniques. Guided by the idea of diduuls, the Sm’algyax concept meaning good life, program developers hope that connecting with the land, wellbeing, culture, and community will help students shape their current and future food systems.
16. Great Kids Farm, United States
Great Kids Farm provides opportunities for students to make the connection between farm and fork in Baltimore, Maryland. The 33 acre farm includes greenhouses, fields, and streams that offer a variety of agricultural experiences. On average, over 2,000 students visit the farm each year to plant seedlings or harvest food. In 2020, Great Kids Farm produced their first annual African American Foodways Summit, and offered seven paid internships to local high school students. In 2021, offerings include virtual field trips, recorded lectures, and a Facetime the Farmer program.
17. Green Bronx Machine, United States
Green Bronx Machine uses school-based urban agriculture to empower historically marginalized communities in the Bronx, New York. Rated one of the top ten health and wellness programs in the United States, Green Bronx Machine hosts a PBS television program, operates a community farm, and delivers backpacks full of food supplies to participating schools. In 2020, Green Bronx Machine grew over 5,000 pounds of food and served 2,300 meals daily.
18. Kitchen Garden Foundation, Australia
The Kitchen Garden Foundation helps children form lifelong healthy food habits at schools and childcare centers in Australia. The Foundation offers online resources and support to teachers at 1,598 locations. A 2017-2020 early childhood pilot program successfully trained 292 early childhood staff, and will be implemented nationally. Curricula focuses on the pleasurable aspects of food: taste, aroma, and social interaction.
19. Nourish, United States
Nourish increases health literacy through television and web content, short films, and classroom materials. A program of WorldLink, a sustainable education program developer, Nourish produces a free curriculum guide with videos for teachers to use in classrooms around the world. The organization’s self-titled film, Nourish, combines expert interviews with rich storytelling to examine the connection of food to public health, social justice, and climate change.
20. Ontario Edible Education Network, Canada
The Ontario Edible Education Network (OEEN) connects individuals and groups across Ontario that work with youth and healthy food systems. OEEN coordination allows non-profit organizations, public health units, farmers, teachers, administrators, and food service employees to work together on advocacy initiatives and share resources. Current initiatives include campaigning for Universal Student Nutrition Programs, and developing a searchable directory of mentor opportunities and food literacy resources across Ontario.
21. OzHarvest, Australia
OzHarvest is Australia’s leading food rescue organization. Founded in 2004, OzHarvest delivers surplus food to charities across the country and offers several education programs. FEAST encourages students to be food leaders in their communities through cooking classes and sustainability training. NOURISH trains vulnerable young adults for careers in hospitality and kitchen operation. To date, 165 students have graduated from NOURISH’s three program locations in Adelaide, Sydney, and Newcastle.
22. Project EATS, United States
New York City-based Project EATS combines art and urban agriculture to help communities thrive. Founded in 2009 by Guggenheim Fellow and Peabody Award recipient Linda Goode Bryant, Project EATS’ Enterprise Program works with neighborhoods to create small plot, high-yield farms that produce food for the community on a sliding scale. Roughly 3,000 public school students have participated in projects like farm apprenticeships, storytelling breakfasts, and school-wide projects. Project EATS holds eight farms across four boroughs, and publishes The Companion, a weekly English and Spanish magazine with recipes, stories, and art.
23. Rooftop Republic, Hong Kong
Rooftop Republic builds urban farms at schools, restaurants, and commercial spaces in Hong Kong. Through the Young Farmers Programme for students, Rooftop Republic teaches the principles of organic farming in classrooms. Classes include the science of plant growth and fermentation, nutrition fundamentals, waste reduction, and sustainability. If schools cannot accommodate an urban farm on campus, students are invited to participate in workshops like microgreen growing and natural soap making.
24. School Food Matters, United Kingdom
School Food Matters develops hands-on food education programs for schools in the United Kingdom. For example, the Breakfast Boxes program has delivered over 1 million healthy breakfasts to students at risk of food insecurity. The organization also offers grants to support school gardens, and allows students to build entrepreneurial skills by selling their harvest. School Food Matters participates in national advocacy campaigns as well, including requesting a school food policy review following the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.
25. School + Home Gardens, Philippines
School + Home Gardens (S+HG) is a pilot program to increase student nutrition knowledge in the province of Laguna, Philippines. A collaboration between the Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture (SEARCA), the University of the Philippines Los Baños (UPLB), and the Department of Education of the Philippines, S+HG has expanded from six to 28 locations. Participants harvest food from school gardens for use in school meals and share seeds and resources with families to encourage home gardening.
26. Slow Food, Global
Slow Food International is a global organization dedicated to preserving traditional food culture and sustainable production. Through programs in 160 countries, Slow Food facilitates educational activities like school gardening, guided tastings, and farm visits. Organizers also created a multilingual educational kit for teachers to explore Slow Food themes like biodiversity with their students. In 2004, Slow Food founded the University of Gastronomic Sciences, where the Academic Tables initiative treats the on-site cafeteria as a training venue. Students meet visiting chefs, eat seasonal dishes, and use a reservation system to reduce waste.
27. Spoons Across America, United States
Spoons Across America promotes the long-term benefits of healthy diets in schools, community organizations, and health care centers in the United States. Programs engage students directly by encouraging observations about the appearance, texture, scent, and taste of different foods. Founded in 2001, Spoons Across America reached 25,000 children in New York City public schools through primary school curricula, family dinner parties, and afterschool programs. They also publish resources for homeschooled children and virtual learners.
28. The School Garden Doctor, United States
The School Garden Doctor puts food at the intersection of science and literacy instruction at schools in Napa, California. Founded in 2018, School Garden Doctor’s signature program Dirt Girls gives young women access to STEM learning through horticultural science. In 2021, Dirt Girls provided 100 plants to participants and hosted 36 virtual sessions. The organization’s blog, Gleaning the Field, provides garden-enhanced education resources for schools and families.
29. Wellness in the Schools, United States
Wellness in the Schools (WITS) works with school leadership to improve cafeteria menus and provide nutrition education to students in New York, New Jersey, Florida, and California. Founded in 2005 by a concerned public school parent, WITS’ Cook for Kids program trains food service workers to cook healthy foods, and provides a daily salad bar and fresh fruit at each location. Program participants eat 40 percent more fruits and vegetables than other students, and play more vigorously during activity time. WITS serves 95,000 students in over 190 schools.