By, Bexx Merck, Athens Land Trust service member
FoodCorps’ motto is “try things.” Simple, yeah?
Two months into my second service term, I’m reminded that it is not. Actually in my service so far, these are the two words that seem to carry the most impact.
Much what I have witnessed, experienced, and observed makes me think that trying new things, specifically new foods, is not very positive. Some of us understandably attach a sense of safety to foods that are familiar, for all kinds of reasons. In fact, many of my friends, students, and colleagues are hesitant about trying new things, despite my somewhat naive and enthusiastic encouragement.
After a few instances of getting shut down, I took a while to understand reasons beyond “just being picky” that stop people from trying something. I hadn’t really explored the subject because I was never a picky eater and love trying things. I attribute this to my parents as they never made special dinners for my sister and I growing up. We ate what they ate, and that was that.
Sometimes, I’d cook with one of my parents, making things mostly from scratch while touching, tasting, smelling, learning the ingredients as they were assembled.
In either setting, we didn’t have energy or money for us to be picky. There was however, a complete sense of gratitude and high value put on the food in front of us. Our family’s largely Southern identity revolved around food, whether canned or fresh.
But my experience isn’t a full picture by a long shot. How we relate to food, and this cultural state of “trying things” (or not), can be shaped in many ways. Some people need familiarity and recognition of what home tastes like; some are weirded out by foods belonging to a culture they are not a part of; some have a minor connection between an ingredient and the dish, or limited understanding of how food translates from raw material to packaged and approved snack. (And there is safety in our packaged goods; reliability, consistency. There is great value in that. Food is not something to play around with- while commoditized in the US, it will always be necessity.)
On the other hand, some folks have no hesitation with trying new things at all.
So where is the wiggle room? How can our sense of safety not be dependent on only what we have been exposed to? How can “trying things” connect with what we are familiar with instead of threatening it?
FoodCorps ultimately recognizes that food and nutrition is not equal across communities and identity groups. And, in an attempt to level the playing field, service members focus on exposure and knowledge to give young people more agency in reclaiming their health and cultures. One of the most important notions in our service is inspiring a more positive association with food grown from the ground, eaten with each other, as an investment in our livelihoods.
“Try things” is no simple statement. “Try things” is our call to engage with our differences.
The students I work with often interpret “try this” as bothersome, like the threat of a pop quiz, so the first obstacle is always making it acceptable to try a new thing in the first place. The grace and energy this requires is astounding.
I serve with students from sixth grade up to twelfth. Throughout my time working with teens, it has been made clear that the more real you are with each other, the better. My introductions to taste tests or cooking labs almost always include “I’m not here to convince you to like _____.” I remind them I’m there to explore foods and experiment in the kitchen by their sides. If we don’t all love what we make that day, that is absolutely okay.
Generally there are a few adventurous folks in a class that help normalize trying something new. What caught my attention though, is these students almost always make a comment about how a new food reminds them of another food they ate once before. Even if completely unrelated foods, they draw connections between those experiences- they make “trying things” a more familiar experience for themselves. Trying a new thing is still safe for them.
I try to do themed cooking labs that have clear take-always for my older students. We prepare recipes that focus on different cooking skills and kitchen literacy, culturally specific foods or food from home, nutrition-packed “one-pot” meals that require few kitchen tools, meals that are cheap, familiar foods with a twist (like more whole ingredients, or improving nutritional content), and ingredients that are easy to grow.
When students get excited to take recipes home or adapt recipes on their own, I see the attitude shift slowly taking place. Many of my students, even when unsure if they really like a new food, love sharing it with their friends and teachers in the rest of the school.
In the beginning of my service, a small group of students and I would walk from room to room explaining what food we made and sharing samples with teachers, sadly with little payoff. They were not interested in our “weird healthy food” despite enthusiasm from the students. While at first disappointing, I realized it was only the next step to create a school-wide shift in our attitudes toward trying new things. I can happily report that with all the exposure and consistency, more and more teachers began tasting the new foods as the year went on, expanding their knowledge and interest in healthy and delicious fresh foods.
Seeing this over and over again has made the need for student-driven activities and leadership in the kitchen glaringly clear. And as I continue to serve with students who get increasingly excited about making and trying foods, I have learned first hand how critical our connections and exposure are to how we navigate new experiences.
“Try things,” when expressed respectfully and with low risk, really is pushing for a more just world of eating and cooking within our communities. It keeps building a more meaningful connection with food for anyone encouraged to do so.
So if you have an opportunity to try a new food soon, I really hope you do. “Trying things” certainly won’t solve our need for food justice, but it can definitely begin to make our hunger for justice stronger.