High Point third graders celebrate healthy food and diversity

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Marissa Finn and Gina Sanchez (right) demonstrate how to make tostones.

by Jordan Green

Students celebrate multiculturalism and healthy eating in High Point schools located in food deserts struggling with poverty.

The amarillos — soft, mildly sweet medallions of plantain fried in hot oil — were a big hit with Lisa Lawson’s third grade class at Oak View Elementary.

For the next act, FoodCorps service member Marissa Finn announced that they would be preparing tostones, a savory cousin of amarillos made from plantains that are less ripe.

“This takes a little longer because we have to fry it twice,” Finn explained. The slices sizzled for a couple seconds in hot oil, and then she transferred them with tongs onto a paper towel. Gina Sanchez, a parent volunteer, dabbed them with another paper towel to remove some of the excess oil. Finn held up a small wooden hand press — a tostonera — for the students to see and asked for volunteers to press the tostones.

Hands shot up from virtually all of the students in the class.

The girl chosen for the task vigorously squeezed the small slabs of plantain with the tostonera, and Finn transferred them back into the hot oil and threw in some crushed garlic — making tostones al ajillo.

Oak View Elementary, a school on the north side of High Point with students representing dozens of nationalities from Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, and various parts of Asia, held a multicultural festival on Dec. 18, the second to last day before the holiday break. Each class studied and represented a particular nationality or culture for the festival.

Lawson’s class had chosen Puerto Rico, a Caribbean island that has been a territory of the United States since 1898. As a complement to the multicultural festival, Finn conducted a cooking demonstration to celebrate the food of Puerto Rico for Lawson’s class, along with a similar demonstration for a class studying the culture of Brazil.

With Lawson’s assistance, student Skye Nguyen distributed dollops of Russian dressing made from catsup and mayonnaise in small plastic cups for each of the students. Finn soon followed, breaking off a crispy chunk of tostones al ajillo into their cups. At Sanchez’s prompting, all the students chimed in unison: “¡Buen provecho!

The dish received enthusiastic reviews from the budding foodies in the classroom.

“This is delicious,” Taylor Page said. “I feel like I’m in paradise.”

She followed up with a precocious query.

“If a Puerto Rican were to come to the United States, what would they think of our food?”

Sanchez responded, “Well, I can tell you, a Puerto Rican came here, and I say the food is delicious. If you go to Puerto Rico, you will find all that good stuff — hamburgers, mac and cheese, hot dogs and French fries.”

She added that she also likes traditional food like cassava fried with onions, and students discussed how people from different countries tend to eat more traditional foods during festivals and holidays.

While for some students, tostones and amarillos were a revelation, for others they were quite familiar.

“They smell like plantains my grandmother makes,” said Yoanna Ochoa, who was born in Miami to Cuban parents.

Oak View Elementary is one of nine High Point schools served by two service members deployed by FoodCorps, a national nonprofit founded in 2009 that places people in low-resource communities to teach children about food and nutrition, start school gardens and, in some cases, put locally produced food on students’ lunch trays.

The Greensboro-High Point metro area was recently ranked by the Food Research Action Center as the second hungriest in the United States in a tie with New Orleans. Data from the US Department of Agriculture also indicates several areas of High Point suffer from low access to food — typically known as food deserts. Most are clustered in the core area south of West English Road and East Kivett Drive, but the area around Oak Hollow Mall that includes Oak View Elementary is also considered a food desert.

Finn is one of two FoodCorps service members who work in Guilford County. The nine schools served by Finn and fellow service member Melissa Tinling — each with 100 percent of students eligible for free and reduced lunch — are all located in High Point.

Food insecurity really boils down to one issue, said Finn, who earned a master’s degree in food culture from New York University and hopes to go into politics one day.

“It all starts with poverty,” she said. “All of the problems with access, whether it’s having a car to get to the grocery store or having access to the right kind of food, have to do with poverty. High Point’s a very interesting case study because of furniture manufacturing. It left High Point, and left behind so many people who need jobs.”

As part of its program, FoodCorps established and maintains a garden at Oak View Elementary and other schools through partnerships with enthusiastic teachers and administrators. Service members conduct cooking demonstrations in classrooms to expose children to healthy food. A goal of the program, as yet unfulfilled, is to get locally-grown food into the cafeteria, but Finn said obtaining a Good Agricultural Practices certification to meet US Department of Agriculture requirements is a barrier.

In the spring, Finn will plant tomatoes, beans, okra and more with the students.

“North Carolina is the No. 1 state for sweet potatoes,” she said. “You can plant them in the spring, and you don’t even have to water them; the rain does that.”

She’ll bring the children into the garden, and let them taste lettuce with tzatziki, a dip made from yogurt, garlic and dill.

Finn would be the first to admit that educating children about food won’t bring jobs to the area to create a consumer base sufficient to attract grocery stores and increase access to affordable, healthy food. What the service members can do is teach people to budget for meals. Finn and Tinling led a class called Cooking Matters for Families for Spanish-speaking people at Ward Street Missionary Baptist Church. They showed how to spend $50 at the nearest grocery, which happened to be Wal-Mart, for eight family meals, and sent the families home with recipes.

Some of the elementary school teachers have expressed skepticism.

“One of the teachers said, ‘It doesn’t matter what we teach them about food if they can’t afford to go out and buy it,’” Finn said. “One thing we can teach them is about gardening. That’s a very economical way to obtain food. Many of the students — more so than for me when I was growing up — being immigrant students, they come from a farming culture. And we don’t cook with expensive ingredients, so these are foods that they can take home to their families for healthy, affordable snacks.”