EAT South Making Southern Food and Intentional Eating Fun For Kids

Kids playing in the dirt.

EAT (educate, act, transform) South has two simple goals: 1. The organization wants to make classic southern food healthy, and 2. teach kids intentional eating. The Montgomery, Alabama organization works with children to help them develop healthy eating habits by exposing them to fresh food in model farms and school gardens. All while making these “green” and healthy activities fun for kids.

“It’s about a connection to our community — to our place,” Denise Blake Greene, EAT South executive director, says. “Food is community in the south and if we do our job the right way we can teach both of those lessons: Healthy living and southern culture. Ours is an educational mission. We want children and adults alike, who learn to play in the dirt at EAT South to have pride in their hard work.”

EAT South also aims to teach kids how to be connected to the land. “They learn what southern food really is,” Greene says. “Maybe if we’re really lucky it will give them a reason to stay, to thrive and build this community. Together, we can make Montgomery a better place.”

So, how does the organization teach how to eat with intention, and still make the learning process fun for kids? According to Mark Bowen, EAT South’s education and community outreach coordinator, the organization does so through a variety of programs. “One example is through our summer teen employment program called ‘Can You Dig It,’” Bowen says.

“’Can You Dig It” is a paid summer internship for teens. The program engages the teenagers and teaches them about sustainable agriculture, cooking, career readiness, health, and nutrition. “One activity they participate in during the summer that exemplifies eating with intention is a reading and comparing nutrition labels lesson,” Bowen says. “After learning how to properly read food labels, we take a field trip to a grocery store that the teens decide to go to (based on where they frequently shop for food) and they choose one food item they would commonly eat, and then record the nutrition label data. Then, they choose a healthy alternative to the food product, record that data and discuss what they have found between the two labels.”

Before the trip, the teens are taught how to read nutrition labels so they can compare and contrast. “Finally, we also purchase the healthy alternative so that they can do a taste test to round out the experience,” he says.

EAT South also stresses that southern food can be prepared in healthy ways. “There is nothing wrong with southern food, its just how it is prepared,” Bowen says. “Take cabbage for example, or any other leafy cruciferous plant southerners enjoy, like collards — it’s commonly overcooked. Steaming these vegetables as opposed to melting it down limp until it loses its color, or even eating them raw for that matter, has shown to support the digestive and cardiovascular systems by releasing key nutritional components that are otherwise cooked to death the way southerners traditionally consume these foods. I don’t think southerners would be opposed to eating steamed or raw cabbage as opposed to overcooked. It boils down to education.”

In addition to food education, EAT South also promotes the ramping up of urban food production. “Poor, urban children in particular, are very prone to not understanding where their food comes from,” Bowen says. “I once had a 3rd grade student ask me, ‘Does ice-cream grow out of the ground?’ That is not that child’s fault for thinking that way. It is a failure on part of the schools, parents, community, big Ag and government. Urban farms are a way to reverse such thinking that is a lot more prevalent than most people think.”

Through educating people about where food comes from, the organization also is able to teach kids about “big farm issues,” such as the use of pesticides and exploitative farm labor practices on immigrant populations. “Urban agriculture can set up marginal systems that address food insecurity, but education is where urban agriculture is always going to have its largest impact on a broad scale,” Bowen adds. “Rural regions are the only places that can supply the food needed to feed a population like ours.”

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Image: EAT South Facebook page