Health & Fitness

March 7, 2013

Food literacy for Sacramento kids and adults is her goal

Amber Stott never met a veggie costume she didn't like – though the red pepper get-up is on notice for making her look like an elf.

Amber Stott never met a veggie costume she didn't like – though the red pepper get-up is on notice for making her look like an elf.

An impassioned promoter of produce, she's been known to parade in public as a pea pod, strut as a strawberry, toddle as a tomato and carry on like a carrot.

She'll even perform the dance of the broccoli trees on a weekly basis – whatever it takes to inspire the 125 grade school kids to whom she teaches food literacy on Wednesdays in a pilot program at Oak Park's Capitol Heights Academy charter school.

As chief food genius (in other words, founder) of the locally based nonprofit California Food Literacy Center, Stott has an ambitious mission statement to share: "To inspire change today for a healthy, sustainable tomorrow through enduring community food education."

It matters little to her dignity that her vision may lead her, at times, to perform a "broccoli cartwheel" for wee ones while in pea pod garb. With her trademark hearty laugh she imparts the message: Green veggies are your friends.

"Learning about food should be fun, amazing and colorful," Stott, 36, said last week during a break from explaining to kids that calories equal energy to be spent or fat to be stored.

Her aim is to capitivate children's imaginations as they learn healthy eating choices and ways to battle obesity without saying the word.

Call her a locavore, or an advocate for a return to simpler times of eating fresh produce that's in season and grown locally, even better if it's from your own backyard.

Though Stott has plenty of company – the region's local-diet, farm-to-fork lifestyle movement is thriving – her backers say her work stands out for its energetic quality.

"It's definitely got the 'fun factor,' " said Emilie Beecroft, interim principal for Capitol Heights Academy. "Her program has been just amazing. It's almost overwhelming. The kids see her positivity, and it resonates with them."

Nearby, Stott is animated as she holds up a bag of purple kale and contrasts it with a bag of sugary, fruit-colored cereal.

"Can you say 'empty calories'?" she asks the 25 kids sitting in a half-circle around her. "Emp-ty cal-o-ries!" they reply in unison.

Stott's story is full of discovery, drive and tradition – with a dash of worldliness. She recalls growing up in rural Savanna, Ill., on 2 1/2 country acres, the daughter of a librarian with books galore, fruit trees and a vegetable garden to help harvest.

She spent hours in the kitchen learning food preparation, chopping, slicing and cooking from scratch.

"I remember my great-grandmother and great-aunt owned a bakery in town," Stott said. "All the women in the family did a lot of baking and canning."

Scandinavian by heritage, Stott traveled at age 16 to Denmark as an exchange student, which added to her worldview.

"That was my first global exposure," she said. "It changed my life. Certainly I would not have the grandiose plans I have if it weren't for that experience."

Later, while pursuing a master's degree in African studies and women's studies at the University of Illinois, Stott lived and studied in the small South African village of Dududu.

"It shocked me when I got to South Africa how little I was prepared (by the media) to see people in modern dress, in Converse and jeans," she said.

Back in the states, she moved west, "a Midwestern girl who was loving playing with all this beautiful California food," she said.

Stott worked for nonprofit organizations aimed at helping underserved communities, such as Women Escaping a Violent Environment, or WEAVE.

Righting wrongs was always on her mind.

Around 2008, she got her hands on a raft of new, popular nonfiction books examining the policies and politics of food.

She had found her calling.

"It's fantastic. It's a movement, and it's happening here," she said. "We're not going away until we fix these problems. This is my life's passion."

Besides teaching food literacy and targeting childhood obesity, Stott sits on the steering committee of the Sacramento Food System Collaborative. She has the support of such partners as Soil Born Farms in Rancho Cordova, Feeding Crane Farms in North Natomas and prestigious organizations like Valley Vision.

Stott, a writer, absorbs books as if she were inhaling oxygen and crafts a food blog with original recipes and delicious photos of her kitchen creations.

The blog's title, Awake at the Whisk, (subtitled "living la vida locavore") was selected carefully to say the exact opposite of "asleep at the switch."

The latter phrase may describe the American public during the period following industrialization, when large corporations began calling the shots for the nation's food supply, she said.

"We let it get away from us," Stott said. "We were told everything in a can is safe, and if food came out of the ground, it wasn't very clean.

"We've got to empower people," she said. "With education, you see how easy it is to vote with your fork, not only for your own health but for the health of your community."

When she is not extolling the virtues of fresh, in- season, locally grown vegetables and fruits to kids, Stott runs an evening academy for adults.

Once a week at the state Grange just north of UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento, she schools 22 volunteers on how to teach food literacy.

The volunteers will represent "an army of food geniuses," fanning out into the community like spokes of a wheel. They will be dispatched to schools, churches, civic organizations, libraries – wherever willing audiences gather to hear their lessons.

Paul Poore is one of the budding academy graduates. Until recently, he worked as a chef at Michelangelo's in midtown. He tired of the kitchen and is now deep into working the soil at Feeding Crane Farms.

Poore said he "loves" Stott's evening classes. They frequently feature guest lecturers such as professors from California State University, Sacramento.

An esprit de corps was evident among classmates and teacher during last week's lesson on how to impart knowledge to teenagers.

When the class members were asked to share something about themselves, Everett Lacey, 25, solemnly announced he had a confession to make.

In a deliberate tone but with a twinkle in his eye, he told of a fall from grace the previous week. For the first time in nine years, he had patronized a fast-food restaurant. He bought a chicken sandwich.

"I was with a friend and I didn't want to be a food snob," Lacey said. "It had to happen. It was totally bad for me." He paused. "It was delicious."

The room was overtaken by laughter, none louder than Stott's.

Words to eat by

Amber Stott recommends these books on food.

You can find her thoughts on these 13 titles at her blog,

"52 Loaves" by William Alexander

"Food Matters" by Mark Bittman

"Farm City" by Novella Carpenter

"Tomatoland" by Barry Estabrook

"Harvest for Hope" by Dr. Jane Goodall

"Fruitless Fall" by Rowan Jacobsen

"Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" by Barbara Kingsolver

"Diet for a Hot Planet" by Anna Lappe

"Deep Economy" by Bill McKibben

"Jungle Effect" by Daphne Miller

"Garlic & Sapphires" by Ruth Reichl

"Heirloom" by Tim Stark

"Mindless Eating" by Brian Wansink

Call The Bee's Cynthia H. Craft, (916) 321-1270.

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