While at the Washington State’s Farm to School office, Chinese American children’s book publisher Philip Lee heard someone say, “Kids that don’t have a proper breakfast can’t learn by 10 a.m., so we don’t really have a learning problem; we have a public health problem,” reports NPR.
Around the same time, Korean American food anthropologist and ethnographer June Jo Lee began studying the links between what children were eating, and their health and academic performance.
Philip Lee is the co-creator of Lee & Low Books, the largest multicultural children’s book publisher in the United States. Eighteen years after his first publishing company, his wife June Jo Lee inspired him to co-found another publishing company.
In 2009, the pair started Readers to Eaters, a publishing house with a focus on teaching children the relationship between how well they eat and how well they learn. The Lees hope that their children’s books will not only impact children, but their parents as well.
“If kids aren’t eating salad at school, it’s because they don’t eat it at home,” Lee explained to NPR. “Where our books come in is in getting families excited to talk about food around the dinner table.”
Their most recent publication, Chef Roy Choi and the Street Food Remix (Food Heroes), follows Roy Choi, a Korean American street chef famous for his gourmet Korean taco truck, Kogi.
The book’s synopsis describes Korean food as “love — It is the love and cooking talent that Korean mothers and grandmothers mix into their handmade foods.” Choi’s food is also described as a remix of two cultures: “not only of Korea where he (Choi) was born, but the many cultures that make up the streets of Los Angeles, where he was raised.” The books published by Readers to Eaters advocate for healthy diets, as well as promote food diversity and cultural ties.
In low-income neighborhoods where families struggle to afford healthy meals, there is one book, on average, for every 300 children. “How do we get books out to them? That’s my mission,” Philip Lee told NPR. To fulfill their mission, 80 percent of Readers to Eaters’ company sales are donated to schools and libraries.
Educating low-income families about food is pivotal now as much as ever, particularly in light of Trump’s proposal that could change the benefits SNAP recipients.
Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, provides food to millions of eligible, low-income individuals and families across the United States. At present, recipients are able to use SNAP benefits to purchase any foods that fall under SNAP’s broad guidelines.
Trump’s proposal, which will be included in the Trump administration budget request for 2019, plans to limit half of SNAP participants’ benefits to a government-chosen, nonperishable “USDA Food package.” The package contains “shelf-stable milk, ready to eat cereals, pasta, peanut butter, beans and canned fruit and vegetables.” What’s missing is fresh fruits, vegetables, and the freedom to purchase ingredients for cultural cuisines.
The foods “could be something that [SNAP recipients] don’t even know how to make,” explains Miguelina Diaz from Hunger Free America, reports NPR. “We deal with different people of different backgrounds. Limiting them by providing them a staple box would limit the choices of food they can prepare for their families.”
If approved by Congress, this “cost-effective approach” could pay a toll on the health and wellbeing of families affected.
“Growing up in Hong Kong, eating fresh was simply part of my culture,” writes Philip Lee in Readers to Eaters. “Most vivid in my mind is when my grandparents came to visit us and I saw an eel swimming in my bathtub in preparation for their favorite meal.”
For June Jo Lee, one food memory includes when her “mom used to make broccoli and red radish kimchi because she couldn’t find napa cabbage at the grocery store in Houston in the ’70s.”
Promoters of food literacy such as Readers to Eaters help communities reflect on the powerful effects of growing, cooking, and eating food. Not only is food connected to one’s physical health, but one’s ability to learn and explore one’s cultural identity.
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