Food for Thought

Food for Thought

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Good morning! You are sitting down with your family to a breakfast of free-range eggs, locally baked whole-grain toast, Ontario berries, free-trade coffee, and organic milk. You feel satisfied knowing that you are refueling your body with nutrition and energy. You feel grateful for having access to ethically sourced products, pleased to see your meal in beautiful vessels, and thankful to Hashem for the earth which provides these resources and opportunities.

John Dewey, the American philosopher and educational theorist, believed in the positive potential of holistic education. Coincidentally, he once used nutrition as a metaphor to make his case. He wrote,

There is no such thing as educational value in the abstract. The notion that some subjects and methods, and acquaintance with certain facts and truths, possess educational value in and of themselves is the reason why traditional education reduced the material of education so largely to a diet of predigested materials.[1]

To take the analogy further, we acknowledge that pre-digested food is suboptimal on two fronts: it delivers less nutrition and it requires less agency from the body in the digestion process. Likewise, to raise children who become healthy, well-rounded human beings, Dewey advocated they ingest an education of thoughtfully integrated learning experiences that demand full attention and engagement.

As Grade 5 educators, when we teach about the connection between the environment, food, and human body, we mirror the natural way in which children encounter food and nutrition.  We engage all their senses, and a variety of learning modalities. The breakfast above offers a holistic approach to a morning meal, interrelating body, mind, environment, history/culture, religion, ethics, economics, and aesthetics. Digested together, they provide much food for thought.

The class examines the Jewish grace after meals, Birkat Ha’Mazon, which includes the Hebrew phrase, “V’Achalta V’Sava’ata u’Verachata,” meaning you shall eat, you shall be satisfied, and you shall bless God. (Deuteronomy 8:10). The words have wide-ranging implications and offer a multi-lens focus on what satisfaction means.  They enable a deep and wide understanding of why and how we consume food for satisfaction. Are we more satisfied and ready to meet the day when gratified as much by our breakfast’s nutritional properties as we are by its ethics and beauty?

Our students analyze the meaning of satisfaction (Sava’ata) holistically. Studying the Birkat Ha’Mazon, they find that Moses first spoke these words when he addressed the Israelites in the desert; the archetypal Jewish prayer, Shema, comes from the same speech. Moses explains that humans cannot be satisfied by bread alone (Deuteronomy 8:3), but require the kind of physical satiation achieved when food is consumed in conjunction with the spiritual, metaphysical, and emotional gratification found in words of Torah. The included prayer, Nodeh Lecha, adds thanks for freedom from slavery, for the Land of Israel, the covenant, the Torah, life, grace and compassion, and, finally, for the food that we eat.  We cannot thank God, nor appreciate our food, one in isolation from the other. Our Grade 5 students begin to make the connections.

Together we brainstorm to identify what satisfies us: eating good food and feeling full, making an effort and feeling pleased, accomplishing goals, enjoying aesthetic experiences (music, art, theatre), appreciating nature, refueling our bodies through rest, and interacting with others. This exploration broadens perspective on what satisfaction means, and primes the topic for diverse applications.

In social and environmental sciences class, the students engage in a blind taste-test of organic and non-organic produce to compare the differences in taste and texture before they see the physical differences between the two vegetables. They learn about genetic and environmental modifications that food may undergo before reaching our plates, and the impact those modifications could have on our bodies.  They investigate other ethical issues, such as fair trade, and discover that fair trade values align with Jewish values; this makes us responsible to attend to where our food comes from, how it grows, and whether those producing it are treated fairly.

The students research nutrients in foods and their effects on the major systems of the human body: the respiratory, circulatory, digestive, skeletal, and nervous systems. A correlating mathematics study of fractions, decimals, and percentages extends the inquiry into nutritional values and the implications of nutrition labels on packaging.

The students pursue independent research in language arts class, selecting a fruit, vegetable, grain, seed, or nut to study in depth. They generate questions about the food’s source, growth patterns, nutritional value, cultural significance, ethical implications, and any Jewish connection. Dewey would be pleased to see the students engaging in authentic, holistic learning— independently they consume original sources and they produce a well-digested understanding of their food.

They carry their selected food into art class and work through a design process to create a ceramic vessel that will enhance satisfaction when it is used to serve their food. The students engage artistically with the food’s shape, scale, texture, and function. They experiment and “play with their food,” stamping it into the clay to produce designs and depths of texture. Ultimately, they carry home a material representation of their integrated learning.

Daily eating — like other habitual activities—can easily be taken for granted.  When students consider the interrelationship of body, food, environment, ethics and Judaism, the experience of eating becomes complex and has more meaning. Breakfast becomes a time for reflection, appreciation, and satisfaction, not simply a mindless routine. Selecting, preparing, serving, and eating food mindfully and holistically sees us nourish our bodies, minds, and hearts.

[1] John Dewey, Experience and Education (1938; reprint, New York:  Touchstone, 1997), p. 46.


Lisa Sheps teaches visual art at The Toronto Heschel School.  She studied and practiced architecture before pursuing a career in education, and integrates her art and design background into her daily classroom teaching.

Marissa Unruh is a mathematics lead teacher in The Toronto Heschel Learning Centre, and heads the Junior High Dance program.  In her seven years with the school, she has taught math, science, and language arts, from SK to Grade 8.

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