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Barbara Storper

Ed. Notes- As you will read, Barbara is a creative person who has developed a way to communicate with young people. We first met her when Jane was matriculating at Columbia University Teachers College. We were intrigued by Barbara's concept and attended one of her early presentations at a lower school in Manhattan. We were blown away at how engaged the young students were in her performance group and how the message she delivered was apparent in the faces of the students. She and FoodPlay have come a long way since the early days, but her message is as potent today as it was then.


MEET Barbara Storper


Let's start with where you are from and your background?

When I look back over the years – I see that all roads seem to have led me on this course –to want to help kids see through media messages and take charge of growing up healthy, happy, and fit, using creativity and the arts to actively engage and inspire. I was lucky enough to study nutrition with Joan Gussow at Columbia University Teachers College, who herself had been a journalist, and came to the nutrition field with the deep understanding that food is not just a nutrient delivery system. Rather, food is connected to almost everything meaningful in life – culture, traditions, agriculture, environment, social justice, on and on, and the important thing is to make connections and ask the right questions. And, as someone famous once said – “In the end, everything is about food!”

What interested you in hunger and education?

My interest in food and nutrition started in college, when my mother had cancer, and struggled with the disease for seven years. I realized then, that with so much out of our control, food was the one thing we could have control over, and we could help our bodies by choosing healthy foods. I started to research about food, health, medicine, and alternative approaches, and realized the political nature of the beast!

I majored in journalism at University of Michigan, wanting to be an investigative reporter and dig up dirt! But, probably the best thing I learned at college was not in the classroom, but outside in the diag, where a performer was teaching anyone who wanted to learn – how to juggle. My secret ambition (never told to anyone!) was to be a clown in the best sense of the term – like Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton. I never thought I could be that, and I never thought I could ever learn how to juggle. But alas, I did learn how to juggle, and it taught me that I could really do anything, as long as I broke things down into steps, and practiced! That was to serve me well throughout my future. I proceeded to go to mime school, toured the country and parts of Mexico, taking all kinds of theater, storytelling, and puppetry classes (things that were on my bucket list but I thought I’d be too scared to do!)

After college, I took a job as “Research Director” for the National Suggestion Box, a non-profit organization founded by investigative reporter, Jack Anderson, to study the solution of national problems, as suggested by citizens. More and more, I became interested in food issues, and quit my job after some idealistic disappointment working in Washington, DC. I worked at the Fields of Plenty Food Coop, and learned more about the politics of food.

I heard about the Center for Science in the Public Interest, and wanted to work there, but the only job available was custodian. Taking that job was the best move I made, I got to go to their staff meetings, and volunteered to create an exhibit showcasing the abuses of the food industry. “The Junk Food Hall of Shame!” was so much fun to use visuals to illustrate, and the exhibit was displayed at Ralph Nadar’s Public Citizen Center for all to see! CSPI told me about Joan Gussow, at the time I needed to move back home to NY to be with my mom. I loved TC and Joan, and was inspired to ask the right questions, make connections, and think outside the box. TC even hired me to help out at the Nutrition Education Resource Project, and I was able to create a mini-museum we called “The Nutrition Discovery Room” – a place where schoolchildren throughout the five boroughs could come and learn about where food comes from, cooking, and making healthy choices.

I was also working as an intern with the NYC Board of Education and was asked to present a lecture to an inner city school in Brooklyn on nutrition. A lecture, for 400 kids, on nutrition…in Brooklyn? Egads, I thought, how boring! But, I knew how influential the junk food advertisements were, and I thought, why not use the same techniques to make healthy food irrisitible to kids? Let’s make a show! I mean, kids would follow me around when I juggled, and with food, there were so many possibilities!!!

What issues do you work on and why?

My boyfriend at the time, and I sequestered ourselves off for a few weeks, with his self-correcting IBM typewriter, and we wrote a funky show with $25 worth of props including a Canadian flag as a cape for our life-size Wonder Woman puppet– who wonders what’s in the foods she eats, and teaches kids to “Read It Before You Eat It’ in rap!) When I say funky, I mean funky – but the cool thing was that the kids loved our show, and the cafeteria staff was amazed to see the kids going for the fruits and vegetables and leaving the chocolate milk in favor of regular milk! The Board of Ed toured us throughout the city schools…and FOODPLAY was born!

That was in 1982, and since then, we’ve been able to send casts of wonderful young performers around the country, from NY to Alaska - to present FOODPLAY performances. We’ve seen the power of live theater, along with juggling, music, magic, and lots of audience participation – to engage, inspire, and empower children to make their choices, healthy ones, and do so in a very non-threatening way. We know that presenting just the facts often does not seem to change behavior. But theater, as one colleague expresses, sideswipes the rational and gets to the heart and soul of a person – the place where decisions about health and behavior are often made. People need to feel, and we’ve seen how making nutrition come alive – in a spirit of fun and celebration, can make all the difference.

What are the biggest challenges for the issues that you care most about today?

The shows are like a trigger – to excite the whole school about learning more. Throughout the years, we’ve created follow-up resources to help make it easy for teachers to continue the learning throughout the year. The feedback has been so rewarding – kids coming up and saying they’re going to tell their parents about the 10 teaspoons of sugar in a can of soda, because “my father drinks so much soda every day!” Or kids telling us that they’re going to cut down on junk foods and at least try a variety of vegetables. And schools have reported “our kids learned more in an hour of FOODPLAY than in a whole year of health classes!”

What drives you?

So, I can look back all these years and feel good at what we were able to do. When I first started out in journalism, I remember that the word “person” was replaced by the word “consumer” – that said a lot! I am very concerned with children being able to critically examine the messages they’re being given, and learn how to think for themselves. If they choose to eat Captain Crunch, fine, as long as they know why they’re choosing it, and not because they’ve been subliminally programmed by the thousands of media messages they see every year.

As nutrition educators, I feel there is a lot we can do to make connections for kids – teaching children that they can make choices that are good for their health and the health of the planet. In our show, we use a simple example - Sometimes I think all anyone needs to know about food can be found here – the difference between an apple and a fast food apple pie. Everything about the apple is good for us – vitamins, minerals, fiber, and what do you have after you eat the apple? The seeds, and you can plant them and grow more trees, get more apples, more seeds, more trees – it’s a cycle by mother nature. But, what do you have with the fast food apple pie – fat, sugar, salt, additives, and the box – which was made by cutting down trees, and then you have to throw it away. And, if there’s one thing we don’t need more of in this country, it’s garbage! So whole foods represent a cycle by mother nature, processed packaged food products represent a “dead end!”

These days, even with all the wonderful Farm to School, In-School Gardens, and requirements to serve fruits and veggies, what I’m seeing, is that kids still are throwing out the healthy foods. For many children, eating at school may be the one opportunity to get fresh fruits and vegetables. With the excellent current emphasis on PSE – Policy, Systems, and Environment, I still think relevant and engaging nutrition education is essential!

What am I doing now? We’ve created a more accessible show called “ToBe Fit, The Juggling Nutrition Magician Show” which is touring around the country at schools, day care, libraries, and festivals, and I’d love to train more young people interested in food and performing, I’m also wanting to help make creative nutrition more affordable and interactive, so I’m creating a kind of “DIY – FOODPLAY!” – with easy and inexpensive ways for schools to put on their own performances, such as “Veggies Got Talent!”, or use video kits and hands-on tools to get kids excited to go for healthy choices. Having the children put on their own shows greatly increases their learning and is a great way to get the parents to come to school!

In conclusion, what message do you want to deliver to our readers? What do you think your legacy should be.?

I’m also working on ways for the school food service staff to have greater connection with students, promoting healthy offerings, and nutrition education. I’ve been doing trainings and working on a kit – “Field Trip to the Kitchen” – where food service staff can host in-school “field trips” – as a way to improve the relationships between cafeteria staff and kids, and showcase what goes on behind the scenes to put healthy food on the table. I also enjoy doing trainings to help educators, especially nutrition interns, discover how to bring their passion to their nutrition education work. Whether it’s cooking, singing, dancing, puppetry, storytelling, the education seems to works so much better when they’re fully engaged and can bring creativity into the mix.

As much as the world looks very bleak now, there is so much we can do to bring people together, and it’s all about food - cooking together, gardening together, participating in the arts together. People may come together as strangers, but they leave as friends.

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About us

Kids Can Make a Difference is a program of iEARN (International Education and Resource Network), the world's largest non-profit global network. iEARN enables teachers and youth to use the Internet and other technologies to collaborate on projects that enhance learning and make a difference in the world.

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