The Language of Lunch


By Erika Johnson

I am passionate about food. I love to cook, grocery shop, talk with farmers, find out where my food comes from, and share food with friends and family. I grew up in a household that valued food, and I was exposed to a lot of variety.

As a teacher, I like to bring in foods that are unknown to my students. But until recently, I did not fully grasp the inequities around food and food education in our nation. How might these inequities be different if more students were exposed to nutrient-dense foods and educated on the benefits of these foods?

Like many high school teachers, I often hear my students — in this case, my Level 1 English learners — complain about the cafeteria food. This past fall, when I asked students how lunch was, they often responded that there were only hamburgers to eat. I knew this wasn’t true. Through research, I learned that school cafeterias must follow strict nutrition and health guidelines established by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to give students the opportunity to eat food that is filling and nourishing. Our school cafeteria is one of the best I have seen, with several options that include a “build-your-own” lunch with a base (rice or pasta), protein (beef, chicken, or paneer cheese), and plenty of vegetables for toppings, but my ELs never seemed to pick that line.

Questions began to emerge for me. Was the unfamiliarity of the “choices” line intimidating? Did students even know the names of the foods there? Did they understand the health benefits? What if they were educated about the vegetable choices? Would knowing the vocabulary lower their anxiety around ordering the food?

My adolescent students come from various linguistic, socioeconomic, racial, cultural, and educational backgrounds, and their journeys to the United States have left many of them feeling lost and confused. They can no longer eat the foods they grew up with in school. Many end up choosing more easily recognizable foods, like hamburgers, French fries, chips, or chicken sandwiches. I realized how challenging it must be for newcomers to take a risk and order unfamiliar food in a language they don’t know. I felt motivated to give my ELs an equitable opportunity to learn about the food options in the cafeteria while simultaneously working on their language development.

Food for Thought

I designed a unit for my Level 1 learners that focused specifically on the vegetables found in our school cafeteria. To begin, I asked students to identify, in either their first language or in English, which vegetables they already knew. Students could only name lettuce and tomatoes. Over five weeks, my students and I worked together to learn the names, descriptions, and health benefits of 20 vegetables. Each week, we had a “Taste Test Tuesday” where students could try five of the focus vegetables each week and graph their likes and dislikes, while also discussing how to politely express distaste. Students learned to calmly spit the food back into a napkin at their seat instead of screaming and running to the trash can. We also focused on the specific language required to order those vegetables in the cafeteria, with language scaffolds to assist them. Finally, I set up a private tour of the “build-your-own” lunch line, where they met cafeteria employees, learned about the lunch set-up, and asked clarifying questions in English and Spanish.

I was hopeful that this food unit and targeted language supports would positively affect student food choices. Throughout the five-week period, I chose random days to go into the cafeteria and observe how my students were acclimating. Since it was the first month of school and most of my students had arrived to the United States within the previous six months, I wanted to (1) ensure that they were getting food and (2) see if our lessons had any effect on their food choices.

I was pleasantly surprised to see more and more of my students choosing the “build-your-own” lunch line. Each week, they came back to class after lunch and told me they had eaten peas, broccoli, or squash from the cafeteria. They also became more comfortable going through the cafeteria line without support from staff or other students, appearing to be more willing to order those foods independently. It did help that there was a fluent Spanish speaker who worked in that line as well, as it gave a confidence boost to native Spanish speakers when they were not sure of a vegetable’s name in English. I also observed plenty of my non-Spanish speakers pointing to vegetable options and getting by just fine, too. What was important outside of the language component was that they knew what the vegetables were, they had already tried them in class and knew they liked them, and they were willing to take a risk to eat them again.

At the end of the five-week unit, my students had learned about and tried more vegetables than I thought possible. They came to class after lunch raving about the peas, carrots, peppers, cilantro, or spinach that day, and they were routinely choosing to eat in that cafeteria line over the others.

With Knowledge Comes Power

Understanding food and the numerous positive or negative effects it can have on our bodies is an important part of living. Extensive research supports the claim that food education can positively impact student food choices and health issues. Teachers can impact student food choice and student health through food education programs and targeted language for English learners.

This five-week food unit enhanced my students’ knowledge of the vegetables available in our school cafeteria and provided the necessary language scaffolding to order these foods during lunch. It also gave my students a safe space to practice English in an environment where it was okay to make mistakes, take risks, and try again. I observed time and again many of my ELs who had begun ordering their food in the “build-your-own” lunch line looking less anxious, more motivated, and more confident about trying other new things and taking risks while speaking English — something that every EL teacher wants to experience.

I know I will continue to educate myself and my students on food and all of the benefits that come from eating a nutrient-dense and varied diet. One short, five-week unit had such significant impacts on student food choices. I encourage you to teach students nutrition education and explore nutrient-dense food options in your school cafeterias to promote a healthy, varied diet and to expand your students’ knowledge about what America has to offer.

About the author

Erika Johnson teaches Level 1 English learners at Wakefield High School in Arlington, Virginia. She earned her M.Ed in Teaching Culturally, Linguistically, Diverse, and Exceptional Learners from George Mason University in 2018.