The Food Studies Institute (FSI) is an outgrowth of the lifelong work of Antonia D’Amico Demas who is the founder of the organization. Antonia has been engaged in thinking about, studying, and doing work in food literacy education her entire adult life. To understand how FSI came to be a national nonprofit, it is useful to understand the context from which it arose.
Antonia has always had a passion for food, cooking, art, children and nature. Her parents were progressive educators and her paternal grandparents were Italian immigrants, living in NYC where they grew a variety of organic herbs, fruits, vegetables and flowers long before arugula and pesto were part of the American lexicon. Ironically, it was her annual visits to NYC as a very young child where she first became fascinated by food, cooking, gardening and ecology. She remembers eating fresh figs she picked from a fig tree growing in her grandparents courtyard, eating meals under a grape arbor laden with ripe grapes, and picking herbs and veggies for her grandmother to show her how to prepare into fresh delicious meals. These early experiences had a profound influence on her thinking by putting the beauty and joy of food and gardening in a central role in her thoughts. In 1964 she quit eating meat because she did not like the idea of eating animals and loved the taste of fresh fruits, vegetables, and herbs. There was little popular support for this way of eating at the time so Antonia decided to learn as much as she could about food and nutrition. This desire for knowledge about food from a broad-based perspective has become her lifelong quest from which she is still learning and has been engaged in her entire life.
Antonia’s interest in food, cooking, and nutrition was further enhanced when her son Damon was born in 1970. At the time, natural childbirth (childbirth without automatically drugging the mother) was highly unusual. Antonia was able to find an obstetrician who let her give birth without drugs and who also did not discourage breastfeeding, a practice which was frowned upon at the time. Fortunately, we have come full circle from these beliefs, but it is good to get a perspective on how widely believed “facts” about what is best can change over time.
The commercially prepared baby food available in the 1970’s contained added sugars, dyes and preservatives. This led Antonia to purchase a blender and puree all of the early foods she fed to her son and to become an advocate for child nutrition. Her son ate only homemade whole grain bread and whole foods prepared by his mother. When he was school age he brought his homemade lunches to school where he was sometimes teased for having brown bread sandwiches.
Antonia began to formally teach food studies to children while living in rural Vermont. She wanted to expose Damon to other children and in 1972 began volunteering at a large Child Development Center in Montpelier that was both a Head Start school and Day Care facility with 60+ students. She quickly noticed that the philosophy of Head Start was something she agreed with supporting parent involvement, daily play outdoors no matter what the weather, and reading to children every day. The one disconnect was the food being served. Though at the time cooks prepared the meals onsite (rather than just heating up already prepared foods), they were serving items such as hot dogs and processed foods which Antonia did not think were the healthiest foods for children. She focused her efforts as a volunteer on working with the cooks to improve the nutrition of the menus and developing hands-on cooking projects for the students. Almost immediately she found that when children literally have a hand in preparing foods, they will eat them. She tested this out by asking parents what healthy foods their kids would not eat. She then developed sensory based curricular activities around these foods and found that, without exception, if the activities were fun and the child could create their own experiment with the food, they would not only eat it but eat it with enthusiasm.
This was prior to the childhood obesity and diet-related health epidemic that later plagued children as more and more processed foods entered the market. Antonia was hired by the center as a full time teacher and cooked with the students every day. They loved these activities and Antonia loved doing research to create her food-based units of study which involved using food as the vehicle to teach science, math, social studies, art, music, and literature.
Additionally Antonia worked with students to create a school garden. She found that the same principle was in play. Not only if kids prepared their own foods would they eat them, but they would also eat them when they grew them in the school garden. The garden served as an outdoor lab for nature study along with teaching students where food comes from.
The Head Start/Day Care Center was in Montpelier, the State capital of Vermont and only a couple of blocks away from the capital building. On Arbor Day, Antonia had some evergreen trees donated to her. She contacted officials at the capitol building to see if her students could plant these trees in front of the building to celebrate Arbor Day. The answer was “yes” and many years later, Antonia and Ariel, her daughter visited these trees that were planted in 1972 by Antonia and her son.
While working at the Child Care Center in Vermont, Antonia learned of an experimental program that Goddard College was offering to Head Start employees. It was called the Goddard Experimental Program in Further Education (GEPFE) and was very innovative. Goddard received a grant from the federal government to offer further education to people working at Head Start Centers in early education. It has been well known that the first five years of life are crucial for child development and future success in life, yet very few resources have been put into this proven theory. The Head Start program is a notable exception although the financial resources allocated to Head Start should be assured, given the lifelong benefits of this program.
GEPFE was unique because it recognized that employees at Head Start Centers did not have financial resources or time to go to college full time. Often they had children of their own to care for as well. GEPFE addressed these issues by having free tuition for all Head Start employees, class time every third weekend at Goddard for the entire weekend, and having students do independent study work related to their work with children. Antonia had completed some previous college so only needed two years at GEPFE. There were no grades and students were responsible for self-evaluations. This system worked well for Antonia because she is her own worst critic and feels that if you have honest self reflection you can grow much more than if you memorize something for a test. Antonia did her Senior Study project on The Politics of Protein and is grateful to Goddard for this unique opportunity. She saw real transformation of her fellow students and herself.
Antonia and her family moved to upstate New York in 1977. Daughter Ariel was born in 1978. She loved to imitate her mother and from age one onward would participate in food preparation. Her favorite activity was kneading dough. The minute she saw that bread or pasta was in the works, she would pull up a chair to stand on next to the table and proclaim “I need to knead.” Kneading dough was one of her favorite activities as a child along with creating recipes for mint soup for her dolls and cat. She is currently a food literacy educator in Baltimore, Maryland and food education has been her life’s work as well as her mothers.
Antonia volunteered at least once a month in both Damon and Ariel’s classrooms as they went through school. She would meet with their teachers to learn what they were studying each month and then design and create food-based units of study on those topics. All units involved preparing foods and learning about their cultural background and history. Students loved these lessons and they made their academic subjects come alive. Antonia was also hired as a consultant to develop and teach units of study for the county she lived in. Additionally, she had opportunities to travel to other countries and taught children outside of the U.S. to determine if this observation crossed cultural lines and was happy to learn it did!
Over a period of twenty five years Antonia was engaged formally and informally in food literacy education projects. Her consistent observation working with many diverse groups was that the kids were the easy part if they were engaged in hands-on sensory-based learning about food. The problem was adult perceptions about kids and a lack of understanding and appreciation of their natural curiosity about the world. Children first learn through sensory experimentation. They touch, taste, observe, smell, and listen to what is going on around them to make sense of their surroundings from sensory data they absorb. Educators do not often take advantage of this sensory receptivity to the environment as a starting point for learning.
A growing frustration that Antonia had was that many educators did not want to take this work seriously and she believes it stems from a fundamental bias about what is perceived as “woman’s work”. Women all over the world feed and care for children, no matter what their educational or cultural background. Increasingly in the U.S. many women had to get outside jobs for economic reasons as the nuclear family with stay-at-home moms started to become a thing of the past. At the same time, convenience foods that required little if any preparation flooded the market. Scientists were making connections about the role diet plays in disease and the diet-related diseases were affecting younger people at an alarming rate.
When Antonia was in her forties she decided one way to gain credibility for food literacy education and the work she had been engaged in while raising her family was to go back to school and get a research degree at a major research institution. That was her motivation for entering first a Masters and then a Ph.D. program at Cornell University.