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Cooking Is Community Care – Empowering Kids In a Time of Uncertainty
[Image: Illustration from ‘Amy Wu and the Perfect Bao’ by Kat Zhang & Charlene Chua. Amy, a young Chinese-American girl. proudly shares her hand-made bao (steamed buns) with classmates at a lunch table.]
In this post: Kids books to reclaim power in a time of uncertainty with food activism
Cooking has become a weapon of empowerment against uncertainty.
I dunno about you – but I’m feeling this constant overwhelm of not-doing-enough-ness. Which isn’t helpful and keeps me from actually doing anything. So let’s take a deep breath and start by celebrating the tiny accomplishments we’ve managed this month.
From making it out of bed this morning, to calling a friend to see how they are doing, to brewing some tea – what is a little thing you’ve managed to maintain a sense of control?
This month at Bumblebee Hollow – it’s cooking. When we’re overwhelmed and over-worked, take-out pizza is no longer an option. We’ve been forced to plan and prep meals because there is no plan B. I keep trying to tell myself this a good thing. (But pizza, I miss you.)
Within our communities we’re coming together for mutual aid. We’re sharing recipes, seeds and sprouts. We’re donating and volunteering at food banks. We’re cooking together and eating with our kids.
While we are all so isolated, food is bringing us together.
When life gives you kale, make… something that tastes decent… out of kale(?)
If we’re to going to resort to home-cooking as the default (which is problematic in so many ways), I’d like to do it without perpetuating systems of inequity. I want some good to come of this. I want my kids to gain a deeper understanding of:
- Their responsibility for feeding themselves and those they care for (Regardless of gender and age! Care work shouldn’t just be relegated to adult women)
- The invisible mental labor, time investment, and skills of planning and prepping meals
- How the ingredients we choose and the way we shop affects farm workers, local businesses, our community, and the planet
- Where our food comes from – who we depend on to make our meals possible and how to support them.
- Basic nutrition, chemistry, physics, and biology
- Eating-related disabilities, illnesses, allergies, and how to accommodate needs and restrictions with patience and compassion
- How to be curious and inclusive of cultural food practices outside our own.
- How to decolonize our diets in a wider effort towards reconciliation and respecting our home and the people who steward it.
That’s all. Just a complete and total revolution in examining how we eat now, and how we can eat better from now on. For six-year-olds.
Oh oh oh – also I want to ingrain these habits so we can maintain it long after the pandemic is over.
This is doable. Let’s start small and slow with picture books and a single meal – and then work from there.
Getting access to the basics
All of this is to say – we’re choosing to make this a learning opportunity because we have the privileges and ability to make that choice. Eating to survive doesn’t have to be a moral lesson. Priority 1: feed the babies.
My kids are lucky enough to have a fully-stocked kitchen, two employed parents who are physically able to prep meals, own own car, and access to a well-stocked and affordable grocery store. But many folks don’t.
So before we dig into how to make use of what we’ve got, let’s make sure other families are getting access to the basics.
If you are able, please join me in these small actions families can take to support your community:
- If you have a spare $15: Donate to your local food pantry. Set it as a reoccurring monthly donation, as families will need food throughout the pandemic and economic depression – not just at the beginning.
- If delivery services are slammed: Do your own in-person shopping if you’re not vulnerable – so overworked delivery folks can help those who need it most. And if you do get delivery – tip your workers heavily for taking on outside hazards so you can stay safe.
- If you can afford the cost, time, energy, and mental bandwidth: Go just a little bit out of your way to buy from grocery stores that treat workers fairly and are providing employees with proper personal protection equipment (PPE).
- If you have a spare 5 minutes: Contact your representatives and advocate in favor of the Essential Workers Bill of Rights. You don’t want a sick cashier coughing on your tempeh, right? Fight for their right to sick pay so they can stay home and keep your kids safe.
- If you shop yourself: Wear a mask in enclosed public spaces. Even if you don’t feel sick. Even if you’ve been in isolation for two months.
- If you are heading to the store anyway: Ask a neighbor if you can pick up a couple things for them – this could extend their family’s trip to the store another few days. Even if you don’t have vulnerable neighbors – many folks have invisible disabilities and challenges they shouldn’t have to make public. Everyone could use some mutual aid.
Reclaiming a sense of control
Before we get to the cooking books – Last week we discussed the survival & triage procedure we use when we’re overwhelmed and the world won’t stop spinning. This week, we’ll discuss reclaiming a sense of power in the effort to mitigate long-term trauma.
Identifying our goals for the next 2 weeks
Back in the triage post, we focused on 4-7 day survival goals. Assuming you’ve got those goals under your belt, we can start looking farther forward. But also there is zero shame and it’s totally expected that this is a two-steps-back, one-step-sob-eating-chips situation. So if you’re like me, reverting back to immediate triage will be a weekly occurrence. Come back here when the chips are safe.
1. Check in with folks +1 level out from the people we are currently caring for.
Now that the people in your immediate household are safe for the moment, reach out to people whose harm would directly impact you – our next-level community members. If your friend getting sick means you’d need to fly across the country, it’s going to be much harder to focus on caring for people in your home. So check on your friend to see if she needs to be connected with local organizations or helpers to get through the next 7 days. Even if you can’t be that helper, having someone check in helps people feel less alone and better able to cope.
Earlier – when I mentioned checking in with neighbors before a trip to the store? Consider identifying 1-2 community members who are older, caring for young children, essential workers, or otherwise overwhelmed or potentially vulnerable. Ask if they would mind if your family checked in with them regularly (with easy outs if they find you annoying or patronizing).
Imagine if every family with the ability to grab a bag of groceries did this for another vulnerable family. The lives we could save.
2. Asking kids what goals they have for the next 2 weeks.
Does everyone in the family have basics covered for the next 14 days? Great. Now check in with your kids, and ask what direction they want to head in while we all collectively attempt to recover our marbles.
In terms of cooking – are they even interested in cooking? (Bad idea to force it, if not). Or would they be more interested in setting the table? Laundering napkins? Washing dishes? Decorative vegetable carving? Calculating the protein content of each meal??
The question is – what goals are they eager to master in growing and contributing their skills to the world?
Identifying our challenges
Overwhelming challenges feel more real and less amorphous-lurking-monster-y when I write them out. So let’s name the challenges-that-must-not-be-named so we can start to get a grip on them. If you’re stumped, start out with a basic hierarchy of needs.
What challenges are we facing in…
- … finding food?
- … cleaning and sanitizing our food and dishes?
- … affording food?
- … finding resources for better ways of eating?
- … getting our immediate family fed and hydrated?
- …helping people 1 level beyond our family stay fed and hydrated?
Identifying our resources
Creating a list of resources at our disposal is an early step in transformative justice and trauma recovery practices. Even when we have very few imperfect resources, with strings attached – it helps to write them out as a reassuring reminder that we don’t have to hold the entire world up on our own.
So let’s list five resources we do have. Here’s an example list:
- Utilities: Clean running water, electricity, soap, access to a sink
- Transportation: delivery services, open public transportation, a bike, car, or clear sidewalk
- Access to food: food banks, affordable grocery stores, fresh produce, dry goods, community garden plots, neighbors with excess chives in their garden
- Cooking tools knives, cutting boards, dishes, pots, refrigeration, a hotplate
- Physical abilities to shop for and cook our own food
- Access to information: internet recipes, cookbooks, devices, free video chat software, social media community groups, and apps to help people with social disabilities & challenges troubleshoot food scarcity, nutrition, and cooking challenges, books about foraging
- People who can point you toward resources for anything you don’t have yet
Since libraries are closed:
Since library books are hard or impossible to obtain now, I’m going be clearer during the pandemic on whether my kids wanted to read it repeatedly and it has layers that need time to unpack (worth buying), if it’s relevant to life in isolation and worth checking to see if you can borrow a copy soon, or if it’s a limited-use story that can wait for you to check it out at the library when it opens.
If your library is limited or shut down, check out the previous post about empowering kids during Covid 19 isolation for how I’m keeping our story time stocked up and germ-free. Search for online and author social media accounts for read alouds, check your local buy-nothing groups (disinfect and quarantine those books first!), and see if your library has a request & delivery service available.
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Kids Stories About Sustainable Cooking & Food Justice
We cook & share food as a way to show love. I’m sure our kids feel it – but have we explicitly talked with them about the significance of care work and what it means to be a family who breaks bread together?
You might also like: Books Teaching Boys To Value & Take Responsibility for Domestic Labor
Step 1: Start healthy relationships with food early
Those first few years, we mainly on focused on exposing the kiddos to a wide variety of fruits, veggies, and spices. And also the difference between edible food and say, toenail clippings. This is our resourcing stage. What resources can kids name that they have access to?
- Baby, Let’s Eat! (Library copies will be crumply and gross – buy a copy to keep.) Indestructibles are made out of the same stuff as mattress tags, so they’re lightweight, tough and durable. We’ve brought ours in the tub, stuffed it into cup holders, and tossed it in the laundry. They get a little crumply, but there’s nothing else like them.
- Nita’s First Signs (Worth keeping to keep kids busy with the slides) Interactive board book with sliding panels might be a little tough for small hands to manipulate, but it’s a great intro book about American Sign Language, primarily focused on meal time. Unlike many sign language board books out there – this does not leverage childism & ableism and infantilize ASL language & culture the way so many do.
- Cook It! (This is a keeper and a great gift) This durable book featuring a multiracial girl and her dad cooking pizza for the family remains one of our favorite books for sooo many reasons.
- Can You Eat?, Can I Eat That?, and What’s Cooking? (Check them out at the library) are all humorous books in a series introducing kids to food beyond mac & cheese, starting with explaining what is edible, and then dismantling myths about non-American cuisine. They’re not exhaustive – just kind of silly and fun to read together.
You might also like: Anatomy & Body Awareness Books For Squeamish Parents
Step 2: Help kids understand what they get out of good food
Establishing why we eat, and how our meals serve a purpose in keeping our bodies healthy. This plays into our challenges stage – from running faster to making food that works for a feeding tube – what goals do kids want to accomplish? Whether they’re aiming to climb the highest tree in the neighborhood or navigate birthday parties with an allergy – what challenges do they want to overcome? Having a cursory handle on digestion (check out the anatomy collection) and nutrition helps with that.
- Teach Me About Mealtime (Check it out at the library) A pedantic early-reader explicitly showing kids on how good food helps kids grow and why we should try new food. Caveats for normalizing hetero 2 family parents and whitewashing, and didactic and boring. But you know what? Sometimes toddlers and preschoolers just need things spelled out. I appreciate that this book is simple, straight-forward, and not filled with distracting fluff so kids can focus on the message.
- Power Up: Your Incredible, Spectacular, Supercharged Body (Check it out at the library) This one was also didactic, but in a fun way. Explaining why humans need energy to think and run, to eat and sleep and exercise. Great book for science-minded kids who have no patience for woo and nebulous concepts like ‘feeling strong’ – this introduces the idea of health and caring for our body as a biological and electrical system. While the end notes touch on relativity and nuclear power in terms just a bit too advanced for my 7yo to follow, I appreciate the attempt.
- What’s So Yummy? All About Eating Well and Feeling Good (Check it out at the library) Another decent but bland book discusses food allergies and sensitivities with a multiracial family and lots of tokenized racial diversity. Grab it if you come across it, but don’t go out of your way.
- Honestly I am still searching for a great book that focuses primarily on digestion with respect to biological nutritional breakdowns – but I haven’t found that yet.
You might also like: Body-Positive Kids Books Championing Fat Liberation
Step 3: Talk about how food connects us to our heritage and history
As a kid I usually ate dinner alone in front of a television. Now that I think about it, I’ve never actually eaten a dinner with my parents. I guess that explains my weird obsession with family dinners as a reliable safe harbor for our kids. And this has been a constant struggle for us – particularly when they’re bouncing off the walls, complaining about the food, and one of us has a zoom meeting in 6 minutes.
So I guess we should explicitly explain to the Earthquakes why this activity together matters so much. These books show how preparing and sharing meals crosses cultures as a time to remember what matters most. I want my kids not just to have the resource of cooking and eating together – but to appreciate what this provides them.
- Fry Bread (Buy a copy to keep, you’ll need time to unpack the symbolism) EXCELLENT book about cultural survival in the face of colonialism, but take note of the caveat in the end notes from Dr. Reese of American Indians in Children’s Literature about the nations listed in the flyleaf.
- Freedom Soup (Buy or borrow) This ties together so many vital discussions about colonialism, slavery, liberation, and anti-Black oppression and pulls it together into a recipe. My kids prefer other books that discuss this theme, and since we don’t have a personal family/cultural connection, we haven’t been able to really get them to identify with the material. But it’s a fantastic keeper, particularly for kids who like soup, celebrate a family history of liberation, and to illustrate how food connects us to our ancestors.
- Let’s Eat! (Buy or borrow) – Originally written in Spanish, this retains the importance of coming together to share a meal as a family in the European / Central-American tradition of hosting a large multi-generational lunch. The repetition engages kids but also shows why we need to prioritize time together with our families despite other pulls on our time and attention.
You might also like: Raising Tomorrow’s Fathers – Children’s Books With Feminist Dads
Step 4: Show kids it’s their responsibility for feeding the family, too.
Showing kids that it’s their responsibility, even at a young age, particularly for all genders, to contribute to the care and keeping of a home. This helps them appreciate the people who feed them (which we’ll get to further down).
- Cook It! (Buy or borrow) – Yeah, this book again.
- Cora Cooks Pancit (Buy or borrow) capture the satisfaction of contributing to a family meal
- How To Feed Your Parents (Buy or borrow) is a cute role-reversal for picky eaters, with a little girl who takes charge in the kitchen
- Gazpacho for Nacho (Buy or borrow) Another one about (but not just for) picky eaters, featuring a boy who takes ownership of cooking and gets interested in expanding his palette.
- The Market Bowl (Check it out of the library) I’m including this one because it’s hard to find a good story showing kids the importance of not half-assing our work in a culture that is both reluctant to acknowledge the hard work of food preparation and is so eager to toss out participation awards. A note on the illustrations – many characters have blue or green eyes (which is a semi-common thing in Cameroon) but without this background information, it comes across as white illustrators reinforcing the narrative that brown is lesser. *Unpacking below.
* Upholding eye colors typically associated with European ancestry as the pinnacle of beauty is a common habit in books, movies, and cartoons – as if [the exoticism of our otherness as people of color] + [a mysterious accessory of whiteness] renders us more dangerous/beautiful/powerful/engaging/special. I am here for mirrors and validation for kids of color with light eyes and hair (such as ‘The Favorite Daughter,’ and ‘M is for Melanin‘), but usually, rendering light eyes with dark skin is done by white illustrators for the delight of white readers. Without end notes to explain the that light eyes are in fact, common in Cameroon, silent depictions like this have a profoundly negative effect on kids of color in white-centered US culture where this book is published & distributed. Those of us with dark eyes that have been likened to mud and feces in real life don’t need more vaguely exoticizing reminders that our brown-ness is too boring and ugly to reflect.
You might also like: Kids Books Dismantling The Myth of a First Thanksgiving
Step 5: Help kids cook for self-empowerment and resiliency
Out of adversity comes good food. As kids start to struggle with frustration over being little, asking for their help preparing meals gives them agency over and the power to nourish others. Seeing how everyone faces challenges, disappointment, failures, and a learning curve is a reassuring boost for resiliency.
- George Crum And The Saratoga Chip (Check it out at the library?) Oh fudge, I lost my notes on this. I do remember it was a good antidote to single-narrative Black history biographies centered on basketball, slavery, and civil rights.
- Amy Wu and the Perfect Bao (Totally worth buying, especially as a gift) Reassures kids that even if they kind of suck at cooking at first – they will get better.
- When Grandma Gives You A Lemon Tree (Totally worth buying, especially as a gift) From disappointing gift to innovation, creativity, and spreading the wealth, this is a lovely birthday book for all year.
You might also like: Understanding Anti-Asian Racist Microaggressions With Food Stories
Step 6: Show children the power of cooking as care-work
Food is an accessible love language for little kids. They need outlets to show affection, love, and care – and these stories show them how they can use cooking as a way to be considerate and supportive.
- Thank You, Omu! and Chik Chak Shabbat (check them out at the library) run along similar story lines, with food bringing everyone in a community together.
- Mr. Putter & Tabby Stir The Soup (check it out at the library) Dang it – I lost my notes on this one too. It involved hard work and making soup as an act of caring. I love this series for countering stereotypes against older adults so hard, plus they’re cute and funny.
- Pie in the Sky (Check it out of the library) Advanced chapter book for older readers, touching on baking through love, grief, care-work, income disparities, transcending language barriers, and so many intersecting issues of awesomeness.
- The Gift of Ramadan (Buy or borrow) This is my favorite book introducing non-Muslims to the month of Ramadan – on cooking as an act of service, on willpower, temptation, the intent and effort behind what we give and how – and how the observance is about so much more than fasting.
Salma The Syrian Chef (Buy or borrow) Another story about kids cooking as an-act-of-love. In times of hardship, food pulls us together as a community, and offers comfort. Disclosure: Annick Press sent me a free copy so I could tell you if the story was awesome (it is awesome.)
- Sun Bread (Check it out at the library – although it’s good to have on hand for cold dark winters) We used to read this during the darkest days of winter when it felt like the world would never thaw. It always gives us hope and makes us feel like we have the power to heal the world.
- Yaffa & Fatima, Shalom, Salaam (Check it out at the library) Simple acts of generosity for the people we care about.
- Little Witch Takes Charge! (Check it out at the library) This is a silly book on the surface, with a subversive feminist message underneath. Perfect for showing kids the exhausting and demanding labor of invisible care-work. I particularly love the reinforcing championing of cathartic anger in women that shows the importance of setting boundaries and reclaiming our time.
You might also like: Modeling Radical Interdependence: Stories Wrestling With Entitlement & Generosity
Step 7: Help kids use cooking for mutual aid & community care
Activism comes in many forms!
- Pies from Nowhere (Check it out at the library) In this biography of Georgia Gilmore, we see some of the invisible labor of Black women who made the Montgomery bus boycott possible.
- Magic Ramen (Check it out at the library) In this biography, Momofuku Ando was not a savior – but an accomplice. He paid attention and saw that living with food insecurity is more than just not having enough money for groceries. The cost of food is not the only challenge in feeding families. Those who miss meals struggle with a lack of time to cook, equipment to refrigerate and prepare, and the exhaustion that comes with living in scarcity. Momofuku solved not just a problem of food inaccessibility – but also dignity for families who can’t cook meals from scratch. There is something deeply satisfying and soul-warming about his understanding that people living in poverty need and deserve warm comfort food. He used his skills and tenacity to develop a solution that made meals accessible for billions of people. This book always makes me cry with appreciation.
- Maddi’s Fridge (Buy multiple copies to keep and give as gifts). If you didn’t notice yet, this book is all over this website, and that is because it’s amazing for destigmatizing food insecurity and empowering children to help right away.
You might also like: Galvanizing Kids Books About Poverty Inspiring Kids To Give Back
Step 8: Show kids the value of invisible labor & essential workers
I tell my kids stories of being harassed and humiliated while working in food service, but without visuals, that history feels long ago and far away. These stories create a tangible depiction for them to understand why we should acknowledge, appreciate, and support the people who feed us.
- Clive Is A Waiter (check it out at the library) I can’t get my hands on this particular book due to the shut down – but supposedly the message teaches kids to treat food service workers with basic human dignity. I trust that it will be great, because this entire series – which focuses on breaking gender constructs and inclusion, is absolutely excellent.
- Good Morning Neighbor (check it out at the library) It’s hard to find books that teach kids about invisible labor – intellectual, emotional, and creative. This book does it nicely, and both of the Little Earthquakes immediately felt the injustice toward the little mouse who sparked and orchestrated the creation in this story.
- Undocumented (check it out at the library) This advanced message on the exploitation of immigrants and food service workers is spectacular for so many discussions on wealth inequality, citizenship privilege, immigration, wealth inequality, and labor rights.
- A Different Pond (check it out at the library) This book has the quiet, slow, and exhausted tone of a family working 24/7 and captures that sense of steady unceasing work when you’re living hand to mouth. It’s spectacular.
- Mountain chef (check it out at the library) This biography of innovative Asian-American chef Tie Sing is a nice counter-narrative to narratives of Chinese Americans as engineers and waiters. That said, it’s a little boring and doesn’t give kids much to connect with (unless your kid happens to be into hiking and pioneering, which my kids are not.) I’m also a little hung up on the part of the story where a mule wandered away to presumably die with a ton of food rotting on its back (this haunts me). Lo is one of my favorite illustrators and Sing was a quick thinker and flexible when things went wrong but the story is… meh.
- The Tomtes’ Christmas Porridge (check it out at the library or buy for your Christmas stash) – If you’re into Christmas (which we’re not really) or into Tomtes (which we totally are), this is a lovely annual story to pull out. The English translation is a bit jarring, referencing the man of the house as ‘master’ – which has some nasty connotations in American English (re: sexism, slavery). Other than that, it was a cute story, and even gives us an opening to talk about emotional labor (how the mother tomte has to protect her husband’s fragile ego), although it reinforces a gender binary and biological differences between genders – as if female tomtes have some feminine magic that men lack. But with the right spin, we were able to discuss how this ‘like all mother tomtes’ line reflects our culture’s tendency to dump all of the invisible labor of orchestrating holidays on women – on mothers in particular – and how this “ability” could be a skill developed by demand and survival in a sexist world, rather than biology. Round this out with a reading of the Mental Load.
- Migrant (borrow or buy) – Gorgeous, kind of poetic narrative from a German-Mexican Mennonite child of migrant laborers. While there are more direct stories about migrant labor, the fantasy tone of this grabs my kids in the guts.
You might also like: Triumphant Kids Stories Honoring Single Mothers
Step 9: Help kids make small, sustainable choices for big change
You don’t have to completely change the way you eat right away. But we must take the first (of many) steps to learn how the way we eat affects targeted people.
Many of us live in food deserts, lack equipment to store and hold fresh produce, and can’t afford the time and cost of filling our plates with handmade tempeh and organic garden veggies. But we can still make some responsible choices within our power.
This isn’t an all-or-nothing thing. Understanding the concepts behind decolonizing food practices, eating local, plant-based diets, and the slow-food movement supports our work for reconciliation, fights wealth inequality and labor exploitation, progresses animal rights, and heals climate destruction.
Most of the books on these topics revolve around community gardening, sustainable farming, and decolonizing permaculture – including those would triple the length of this collection. (Another time, then!) So for now I’ll leave you with a few books to get started.
- Vegan is Love (check it out at the library)
- I Am Farmer (check it out at the library)
- Fast Farm and Slow Farm (check it out at the library)
- We are Grateful: Otsaliheliga (buy or borrow) Life through the seasons celebrating modern Cherokee traditions.
- Extra Yarn and No Water, No Bread (both are worth buying) are perfect allegories for interdependence and radical generosity that can be used in terms of sharing food, but also other resources.
- Be The Change (borrow or check it out at the library) Taking responsibility for our actions. A reminder that every single choice we make impacts those who have less than we do. This story helps draws the connection between the way we eat and practicing nonviolence.
I’m trying out using Bookshop.org images with links instead of Amazon for the following images. Help me out and let me know in the comments if it works on the reader end, okay?
You might also like: Kids Books Dismantling The Myth of a First Thanksgiving
Stay Curious, Stand Brave & Eat Your Vegetables
If you find my work helpful, I’m asking you to donate $5, 15, or $50 to The Greater Boston Food Bank or your local food pantry. If you’re financially struggling and can’t – that’s totally cool. Take what I have to offer and care of your family.
My work is free & accessible to all and we focus on easily obtainable library-books as tools because families shouldn’t have to miss meals to afford an education.