Making a drama out of Food Literacy education

Hamlet: “Alas Poor Cauliflower, I knew him. A fellow of infinite recipe possibilities and cancer-busting properties.”

Why am I suggesting we make a drama out of a crisis? Pray, indulge me for a moment. First, let me suggest that there are a myriad reasons that cause people’s relationship with food to go out of balance:

scarcity at a young age,

• feelings of low self-esteem by not being able to currently provide for the complete nutritional needs of a family,

• body and health image issues as a result of family and societal pressures,

• lack of other ways to deal with stress and emotional issues,

• lack of empowerment around nutrition and health.

Gregor Samsa awoke one morning to discover that he had been transformed into a Happy Meal.

All of this stuff is both complicated and layered deep within us. Clearly, receiving a expensive color leaflet on healthy eating or receiving generalized nutrition education at too early a stage is not going to do much to counter any of these deep-seated issues. It will not change people’s behaviors around health and food.

Our approach at the Foodbank in Santa Barbara County has been to focus on the practical and interactive. Kids won’t eat vegetables. Absolutely. Kids will eat vegetables that they have had a hand in figuring out a recipe for, or cooking, or having had a hand in growing. Equally absolute.

Preparing incredibly-edible Beet Pancakes at one of our ‘Pink and Dude’ Chef Programs for Middle School kids.

Nevertheless, given the deep seated issues and the power of family and societal pressures (like the $12 billion McDonalds spent on advertising last year) make it clear that wholesale transformation requires a number of education/empowerment approaches that appeal to and engage people in different ways.

That is why live drama is such an appropriate approach to deal with this area. Since the time campfire storytelling gradually became replaced by dramatized depictions of the messy complexity of life, drama has been a powerful tool to bring about self-awareness and stir action.

Food insecurity can be fought when people feel empowered around food, to look after themselves and their families and begin to demand that their communities are organized in a way that makes sure everyone has enough to eat. Food literacy can be attained when people are able to see and begin to break down the ‘programming’ around food that they and others around them have allowed to grow up since they were still in their mother’s womb.

For the sake of full disclosure, I should reveal that my early writing background in England was as a dramatist. When I was still at college, I actually got all of my friends to join the Drama Society so that they could vote for the Society to perform my play as their next production. While this egotistical attempt to warp current reality to fit my own view of it might later prove an important life-skill, at this early stage it blew up in my face, when the Drama Society met again in secret to pass a new rule that new members couldn’t vote for 90 days. (And I’ve kept away from politics ever since…)

Nevertheless I carried on and wrote a number of plays and had some moderate success with some productions on the London ‘fringe’ (or ‘Off-off-Broadway as it might be termed in the U.S.) As a young man, powerful theater productions certainly changed the way I thought about a lot of things in life, and experiencing them in a small theater (preferably in the round) where the actors are practically spitting on you, helps you internalize things in a way that staring at a screen never can.

Fascinating as Erik’s trips down memory lane are, how can this really help shape young people’s attitudes to food and health? Well, my experience and those of others suggests a number of avenues.

Let me start with the more widescreen approach. Last night I attended the opening night of ‘Café Vida’, the new production by LA’s respected Cornerstone Theater Company. It is part of ‘The Hunger Cycle’, nine world premiere plays about hunger, justice and food equity issues.’

Agreed, that makes it sound worthy but dull, something aimed at the intelligentsia rather than those who might more urgently be touched by these issues. Cornerstone’s approach is to work with the community and have a playwright draw together strands and stories that come from extensive research and workshops with people. The play was written by Lisa Loomer and directed by MICHAEL JOHN GARCÉS

This approach was certainly effective with ‘Café Vida’ which looked at Chabela, a woman recently released from prison who is fighting to get her daughter back from foster care and who lands a job at the titular café which is run by Homegirl Catering, the offshoot of Homeboy Industries, the work-generating nonprofit for ex-gang members started by Father Greg Boyle in LA.

The play opened with a welcome recognition of the wider issue of hunger that was the intellectual starting point for this blog.(“I’m hungry for success, “I’m hungry for a father, but I’ll take any man that puts up with me” etc) and with Chabela struggling with her body image.

Through the course of the play, food becomes not the weight dragging her down, but the chance for empowerment that she has been casting around for. She has to learn about food and cooking, and even risks cooking Kale for her abusive husband. (Needless to say she’s brave.) There are funny and honest scenes about the homeboys and girl’s scorn for composting or growing food (you can imagine the hoe/ho’ jokes…) or the humiliation of having to be a waiter and trying to keep a happy face no matter how rude the customer.

Lynette Alfaro

Chabela is play by Lynette Alfaro, who was herself in very similar situations (jail, struggling to reclaim daughter etc). The point of this approach to drama is the transformative effect of the people who involved in the production as much as the family, friends and others in the audience.

I went to see the play, because I have been in discussion with Cornerstone for a number of months about using their approach with local writers and performers in Santa Barbara to look at the issues of food literacy and insecurity that we are engaging with.

Productions like this can serve as a powerful advocacy tool for those involved in the provision of food or emergency services. It stops the discussion getting stopped with some people on the level of ‘charity for the needy,’ or ‘encouraging people to be lazy and not work to provide for themselves’ and that’s even before we get into the subject of food stamps…

However, I believe there is a vital next step for the use of drama in this area. That is within the actual programs that serve people, utilizing scenes and songs devised by young people themselves.

We have to rewind a few years again to the late 90’s. Coming to Santa Barbara from England (I didn’t realize you made your millions and then moved to Santa Barbara, but that’s another story) I hooked up with an organization called City@Peace, which uses drama and the arts to teach conflict resolution and mediation skills to teens. They work a mixture of ‘at-risk’ kids, those sent to a Court High School, those directed to the program by juvenile Courts and a sprinkling of theater nerds, and each year they work to put on an original production at a local theater with scenes and sometimes songs written and acted by kids.

I received an Artist in Residence Award from the (now defunct) California Arts Council to teach scriptwriting and film making at the program. The program can have a powerful affect on the kids who become involved, keeping them out of trouble and helping them look at their lives in a different way. (In fact one of the kids from that program that I taught, James, now lives around the corner from me – happy, hard working and well-adjusted, when that seemed an impossible dream just a few short years ago. The program is still going strong now with an upcoming production ‘Echoes’  this month.

I will be speaking to City@Peace in the next few weeks to explore the possibilities of a co-production with them as well that might focus on these areas.


One byproduct of these would be short pieces, using drama, comedy and music to explore some the issues around food in the family, in the school and in their lives. We would hope to put together a small troupe who might want to perform at some of our after-school programs like Healthy School Pantry. This would draw more people to the program, and deepen the messages coming out of the existing approach to empowering people around food and providing the food and skills to do. These skits could also be videoed and used in PSAs and in other forums.

Those who attended the Feeding America National Summit in Detroit last month witnessed a performance by the city’s Mosaic Youth Theater. Mosaic included a couple of raps/performance pieces on nutrition and eating habits. While this was on a fairly surface level of ‘kids saying what adults want them to say’, there was nevertheless some powerful stuff that would truly resonate with an audience of teenagers as much as an audience of well-oiled food bankers.

I would encourage organizations around the country to consider the possibilities of partnerships with local theater and educational companies in these areas. In a development sense, these activities can help you tap into foundations and donors with more interest in arts/education than with human services, so there may be funding available that is not going to dilute your current funding. For those in the programmatic area, building entertainment and involvement into your programs is clearly the way to go forward.

More news from SB on this front as it develops.

One thought on “Making a drama out of Food Literacy education

  1. Pingback: The Backpack Program: Sacred Cow or Fatted Calf? « From Hunger to Health

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