If you’re into the Sacramento food blog scene, you’ve certainly come across Amber Stott’s Awake at the Whisk. You may have thought, clever title, but did you know by “awake” she means aware and paying attention? With years of nonprofit work, a passion for food and disdain for a “food system that has changed in horrible ways,” Amber (one of Sacramento Business Journal’s 40 Under 40) recognized an unfilled niche. While hunger and lack of access have been problems for a while, urban farms, common gardens and food banks were not filling the void completely. Volunteers work tirelessly to supply impoverished folks with healthy food, but still bags of veggies end up in food bank parking lots instead of recipients’ bellies because folks often don’t know how to prepare produce. Amber knew she could offer those same communities the “palate education” and cooking skills they lacked. She also knew, however, that adults are hard to reach as they are often entrenched in unhealthy habits and it’s “harder to change attitudes already embedded.” As a result, she directed her attention to their children, beginning with K-5 students who attend Capitol Heights Academy in Sacramento’s Oak Park neighborhood, 85% of whom are on the free or reduced lunch program.
She set out to transform the food movement’s message, which often focuses on “scaring people and being negative” by creating California Food Literacy. Once she’d settled on a plan, Amber engaged her friends and followers and put her grant writing skills to work earning financial support from the California Endowment, Sacramento Region Community Foundation, the Sacramento Bee and Simply Recipes. She did all this while developing curriculum, teaching classes, generating volunteers and generally keeping the organization afloat, and she couldn’t have done it without the unwavering effort of her volunteer staff—one of whom returned to Singapore after graduating college and still volunteers online 20 hours per week.
Back at Capitol Heights Academy, Amber and her staff got to work devising recipes (using food kids would eat) in the school’s non-working kitchen. An early cooking lesson on how to make popcorn resulted in a blown fuse and clarity that future lessons might only consist of “some version of a salad.” But Amber and her team are too creative to be subverted by a lack of heat. Their current lessons include a revised edition of the Taco Bell burrito, which begins with an example of the not-so-appetizing version from the restaurant. Upon first sight, students remarked, “Ew, that looks disgusting,” and once the teachers modeled the home-made version, the kids asked, “Why does that one look better than” the other? Then, the kids set out preparing their own revised burritos and promptly gobbled them —even though they were cold.
Lessons continued with a revised peanut butter and jelly sandwich, which became sunflower butter and apples instead. Along with how to make the meal, students learn why the revision is necessary— apples for fiber and vitamins, and they remember what they learn. Students returned this year talking about trans fats, a lesson they learned the previous year from studying food labels, which prompted Amber to “want to show off how smart [their] kids are.”
The lessons don’t only affect the students; Miss Willy, who works in the cafeteria, has a son in the program, and she also has the pleasure of doing computer work while CA Food Literacy classes are in session. One session in particular impacted her; teachers brought frozen watermelon and made watermelon “ice-cream” by putting it in a food processor. Of course, the kids loved it, but Miss Willy was the most excited because her son, who’d never liked watermelon, lapped up the frozen treat. She was so thrilled she requested a photo with her son to commemorate the occasion. Teachers who observe the classes also benefit from the program and ask questions developing their own food literacy, which has even prompted weight loss. This program inspires everyone it touches.
The students have even developed notions of grandeur around their developing food expertise. Propelled by her students’ reception to food literacy, Amber “went crazy and took a risk” by bringing in brown rice, chard, lettuce, carrots and sesame oil, much of which was donated by Feeding Crane Farms. After compiling their own salads and fawning over the sesame oil’s fragrance, the kids suggested they should open a restaurant because their meal was so good. Upon returning from winter break, one student even confessed “he’d made the salad five times.”
While students and teachers have received the program well, there are some significant challenges Amber and her team face. Amber worked seven days a week between July 2012 and November 2012 and wrote herself the first paycheck after almost a year and a half because she “didn’t want to draw a paycheck” until the organization reached its first financial goal. Another struggle is keeping students engaged and interested in trying new foods. Kindergarten and first graders will try most of what’s offered; second and third grades will try some, but teachers notice the most resistance in fourth and fifth grades, which makes them concerned about how long students will practice what they learn in the program.
As a result, one of California Food Literacy’s next goals is to create a program for parents. Recently, they’ve implemented the Food Literacy Academy—a program for volunteers offering training in nutrition, education and food systems, and intend on a statewide expansion, which will generate the staff they need to expand, but their growth is “strategic and slow.” While they have fundraised successfully thus far, there is still much to do because they are a nonprofit (not a government-funded agency), and they receive no money from the school. In light of the work ahead of them, Amber feels “selfish [just] going for a run” yet still commits to her own home-cooked meals with an occasional indulgence like her signature pumpkin waffles because “you can be as insanely busy as I am and still eat well.” Her life choices prove she’s committed to her original goal of revising a harmful food system, and she insists, future “funding is what’s going to keep [California Food Literacy] going.”
Click on the images to scroll through the gallery and see what Amber and her team are up to at Capitol Heights Academy: