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Elementary schools are teaching the cultural importance of soul food to the Black community

They are being taught about the black enslaved people who created so many dishes that are now American house staples.

Elementary schools are teaching the cultural importance of soul food to the Black community
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Macaroni and cheese is a classic American household dish and the comfort food of many. It is beloved by adults and children alike. However, very few know the historic importance of this dish. This Black History month, elementary kids will learn about the American history of baked macaroni and cheese and the enslaved Black cook who made it possible, per TODAY. Shalynn Brooks, a FoodCorps service member, explained, "It used to be called macaroni pie. It was created by a renowned chef, an enslaved chef." 


She's alluding to James Hemings, the cook who was enslaved by Thomas Jefferson and was responsible for many of America's favorite meals, including mac & cheese. Brooks said that initially, Jefferson was credited for these dishes instead of Hemings. Brooks has designed a unique lesson for Black History Month that teaches elementary school students about the ties between Black people and some of the most iconic American cuisine. In its second year, the initiative brings the lesson to 19 primary schools in Massachusetts' New Bedford Public School District, giving students a glimpse into how some of their favorite dishes ended up on their lunch tables.

Brooks said, "This year I chose candied yams, cornbread, a fried turkey leg with a side of barbecue (sauce) and baked mac and cheese." She added, "The way the cafeteria is set up, it’s not like we could do it how we make collard greens at home. But we did an adaptation, and they get to try that next week on top of being able to have the whole meal. They’ll have a deeper understanding of it."


Brooks joined FoodCorps after graduating from college in 2021, an organization that works with educators and school nutrition professionals to offer kids meals, food knowledge and culturally affirming experiences. FoodCorps is collaborating with New Bedford Public Schools and Grow Education, the Marion Institute's farm-to-school initiative. Brooks is educating tiny brains via their tummies as part of Grow's support of educators, parents and students through healthy food education. Brooks said, "The connection between food and Black history just wasn’t taught when I was growing up in schools. What we normally learn about in school is still important, but I just always felt like there was something missing."

Brooks adds that after the session, kids got to choose one item they learned or were really interested in and draw it, which she believes helps them connect the dots. She said, "Then they write the reason why they picked that thing or person and then they get the meal. It was all very much geared towards the trials and tribulations of the Black community and all these things that we had accomplished through that."


"I feel like there was a missing part: the celebration and appreciation and a deep understanding of all of it. Through food, that’s the way that I thought would make a good connection," she added. Brooks claims that being mixed and growing up closer to her Black relatives affected her affinity for African American food. She said, "Every moment that we shared, there was food between us." When asked how the students feel about the lesson, Brooks says they are pleased to get a dose of history with their meal. "Last year, they were ecstatic about it and were asking for seconds," she said. 

She adds that several of the foods, such as yams and cornbread, have been added to the cafeterias' permanent rotation as a result of the excellent feedback. Seeing the students enjoy the meals she values the most has encouraged Brooks as she thinks about her own background. Brooks said, "When I was younger, I was kind of disconnected. I was fostered, and when I was fostered, I got disconnected with family and the culture and everything." 

"When I got older, I used to go over to my brother’s, and during celebrations, he would make collard greens, baked mac, barbecued ribs and things like that, and it reminded me how I really was disconnected for a little while," she added. "It was really important to me to work on this project, to feed my younger self."

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