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John Sloat Elementary School fourth-grader Sammy Mucha was so excited to get out of school on a recent Friday afternoon he barely noticed some adults from the Sacramento Food Literacy Center standing near the exit gate.
They were inviting students to try a two-ounce cup of their freshly made pumpkin and bean chili. Someone approached Sammy as he walked and put the cup in his hand.
Sammy, who is 10, dashed off carrying the red and brown chili concoction to a car parked in front of the school where his grandmother, Annette Williams, was waiting. After settling into the front car seat, he stared down at the sample for a minute.
“I was hesitating tasting it at first,” he said. “Then I did, and wow, my mouth blew up with all the flavors.” He was surprised to learn its ingredients included pumpkin.
He turned to Williams and said, “They have the recipe over there. Should I get it?” And just like that he bolted out of the car, took his turn in line, and asked for the recipe.
To his surprise, he was also handed a nylon bag filled with all of the ingredients to make a full meal to serve four people. He ran back to the car, handed the bag over and told his grandmother he got her a whole meal to make, and then he offered to help.
Lightbulb moments like this one — where children wake up to the yum instead of the yuck in vegetables — is exactly what Amber Stott, CEO of the Sacramento Food Literacy Center, wants to have happen a lot more.
“Sacramento has a 40% childhood obesity rate, and this is preventable,” she said.
To appreciate fruits and veggies
The mission of the Food Literacy Center is to show students in low-income elementary schools how good nutrition, gardening and active play can improve their health and their environment.
Stott started the center in 2011 after a career in nonprofit management, and was driven by her personal passion for improving the food system. As a food writer and blogger, she said she has done a lot of research and writing about the need for increased education regarding food.
She decided to merge that with her professional skills to start the Food Literacy organization. The center’s building is owned by the Sacramento Unified School District and the programs are operated by the Food Literacy Center under an agreement with the district.
The organization has 10 staff members, gets assistance from volunteers and has community members serve on its board. It is steps away from the Leataata Floyd Elementary School.
The center’s main purpose is to teach weekly programs in after-school settings in low-income elementary schools throughout the Sacramento area. Students learn fruit and vegetable appreciation, how to read nutrition labels and the environmental consequences of their food choices while gaining cooking skills.
To build a food kit
Stott also runs a Food Literacy Academy, which teaches volunteers to become food literacy educators, needed especially in areas where access to fresh fruit and vegetables is limited. Center recipes and video instructions for these low-cost meals can be found at https://www.foodliteracycenter.org/recipes
Even though the center has grants to support much of its work, the take-home recipe kits do not have a continuing source of funding. In 2023, the center gave out 1,878 kits to students, designed to serve 7,512 meals, Stott said.
She is hoping that Book of Dreams readers can provide $4,500 to buy recipe ingredients and storage containers, and have a children’s booklet translated into three languages so the program can continue and possibly even expand.
The recipe kit idea was established in response to the pandemic, when Stott was forced to shift away from classroom training and provide recipe kits with boxed up ingredients instead.
“The families loved our recipes,” she said.
The recipes included meals such as rainbow vegetable soup, broccoli and potato tacos, oatmeal breakfasts, spaghetti marinara and sun butter sandwiches, Stott said.
When things went back to normal, “families were showing up to principals’ offices asking when they were going to get the kits,” she said “That’s when I started getting phone calls from these principals.”
To improve brain power
Stott never intended to run both programs, she said, but “we have done our utmost to respond.”
At the John Sloat Elementary School on that same Friday, two dozen kids from the transitional and regular kindergartens were ushered over to sit on a long school bench outside of a classroom. They were asked to take the same taste test as Sammy did.
They had differing reactions. Some just stared. Others stirred and smushed the food around the cup for fun. Several took the tiniest of tastes to the front of their tongues. Another ate it up in one big bite, and then jumped up to show the others as if he had won a race.
Five-year-old Lynette Tremble politely raised her hand until someone called on her to speak.
She said, “I would make the soup.” When asked what she wanted for Christmas, she said, “I need a cooking toy.”
Principal Africa Fullove, who is in her second year leading the school, said she tried the chili, too and enjoyed it.
“Too many kids love the spicy chips, the Cheetos and all of that,” she said. “This program reminds us that if we eat nutritionally, our brains will work better.”
That improves school performance, she said, “so I hope the Literacy Center is able to come back and do this again.“
Book of Dreams
The request: The Food Literacy Center wishes to provide recipe and food takeout kits to help kids learn the value of good nutrition.
The cost: $4,500.
Here is the recipe for pumpkin and black bean chili. For more recipes go to foodliteracycenter.org
1 teaspoon olive oil
1 onion (1.5 cups) diced.
2 bell peppers diced.
1 15-oz can tomato sauce.
4 cups cooked black beans.
4 teaspoons chili powder, more or less to taste
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1-2 teaspoons paprika, more or less to taste
1 teaspoon of chili flakes, optional
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper.
1 teaspoon Mexican oregano
4 cups diced tomatoes.
1 15-oz can pumpkin puree
6 cloves of garlic, minced.
Pumpkin seeds for garnish
Instructions for Adults:
Assist with stovetop cooking for safety.
Instructions for Kids:
Heat a 4-quart pot over medium high heat. Add oil, onion and bell peppers. Saute onion and bell peppers for 3-5 minutes or just until they begin to brown, and the onions begin to turn translucent.
Add tomato sauce and black beans (do not drain the liquid) and bring to a simmer.
Add spices and stir. Stir occasionally, scraping the bottom of the pan to ensure nothing is sticking to the bottom.
Add the diced tomatoes, pumpkin puree and garlic. Stir to combine. Simmer at least 5 minutes.
Garnish with pumpkin seeds and serve. This will taste even better the next day!
Printed with permission from the Food Literacy Center.