Why Real Food Matters to Me

Writer and blogger Georgina Rupp on the importance of Real Food in today's world

  • December 12, 2018
  • Comments

By Georgina Rupp

“Couscous” was one of my earliest words, or so I am told. While I cannot confirm this from memory, I certainly believe it to be true. My maternal grandmother is French, and as such I grew up eating French food made with American ingredients and health-conscious portions of butter. I loved couscous growing up and still do. My early fondness for this dish is why I know Real Food has always mattered to me.

I’ve known Real Food to be important for as long as I can remember and certainly long before I knew anything about how to label it or the mission behind it. It was while teaching middle schoolers how to cook in their public school’s kitchen that my understanding of Real Food transformed from an important concept into a social justice issue.

Looking back, Real Food––both its benefits and its shortcomings––informed each stage of my life. By now, I know of nutritious food’s benefits to strengthen the immune system, improve brain functioning, and deter health issues. At the beginning, though, real food for me was simply synonymous with family.

* * *

Growing up, my family’s best moments were spent in the kitchen. I learned to cook from my mom, who learned her techniques from her mother; cook an omelet over medium heat so it won’t stick to your pan, buy dried flageolet beans and soak them overnight, etc. I am not alone in this experience.

Everyone participated in cooking in some way. My dad would take my sister and me to the store to contemplate the pasta aisle, which often ended in a rock-paper-scissors vote between corkscrews or bowties (the Italian names were of no importance then). Later, my stepmother taught me the value of putting in the work: we made intricate bûche de Noël cakes at Christmastime for which my sister and I toiled to roll marzipan holly leaves in food dye and fasten meringue mushrooms together with melted chocolate. Cooking was a forum for bonding that cultivated togetherness around our tables.

* * *

When I discovered my love of running, my concept of food evolved. Meals still meant community, but nutrition now informed their consumption. Caring for your body, I learned, extended far beyond the workout and the water bottle. Food was not just delicious nor simply an excuse for a gathering; it was fuel. On race days, I needed to be nourished with energy-rich foods like bananas and nut butters. After a race, I needed recovery––electrolytes, chocolate milk, and a treat because I’d earned it.

Listening to what my body wanted became a habit, and adhering to it was rewarding. I felt better when I remembered to choose food as fuel. I found it impacted not only race performance but also energy, focus, and drive. Berries and leafy greens turned into my go-to brain food accompanied by oatmeal to keep me satiated during long exams and standardized tests.

* * *

When I got to college, I took our salad bar for granted. There was so much available in the cafeteria including an overwhelming plethora of sugary cereals and super-sweet cookies. Choosing every ingredient and meal for myself, for the first time, was challenging. I’d consumed my mother’s low-sodium, protein-rich, and colorful meals all my life without really thinking through the balance of ingredients on the plate. I learned quickly that some foods made me feel good and others left me groggy, achy, or unsatisfied. I felt better when I filled up on fruits and vegetables with protein on the side rather than empty carbs, but I didn’t always choose this balance.

Then I found myself with a summer job working retail on Long Island, New York. The area is chock-full of farm stands. I became obsessed. Beefsteak tomatoes from the corner grocery store were practically unidentifiable next to their bulbous, flavor-popping counterparts still coated in dirt. I loved being able to enjoy unparalleled seasonal flavors while supporting local farmers on their turf, but I was puzzled by the high price tag and limited availability. There must be a way to get these flavors and nutrients––from foods that aren’t covered in pesticides––in big cities I thought. There had to be a way to lower their prices. The real food is out there, so how will we share it?

* * *

By my college graduation, real food, to me, had many meanings. It was synonymous with community, health, fuel, farms, and flavor. My definition, however, was not yet fully formed.

Two months later, Teach For America sent me to Denver, Colorado, where I began teaching at a public charter school that serves free or reduced price lunch to over 90% of its student body. Students and teachers were hungry come lunchtime, and consuming a healthy midday meal directly correlated to the productivity of the afternoon learning. On some days, when a student didn't care for whatever plastic-sealed meal was being served, he or she would choose not to eat at all. This struck me as problematic. Of course, kids are notoriously picky eaters, but what are we doing to mitigate this trend so no child leaves school hungry?

I decided to support an after school cooking class in which we cooked healthy meals, taught students about nutrition from around the table, and sent kids home with free groceries to recreate the recipes with their families. The kids were thrilled to discover names for new foods, slice and dice vibrant veggies, and share the dish they’d contributed with their classmates. At dinner, we would identify the food groups on our plates: fruits, vegetables, grains, protein, as well as dairy. Then, we would ask the group which food groups they’d consumed earlier for lunch; often, a child would say something like, “Well, today I didn't eat my vegetables. I like this dish, though, so maybe tomorrow I’ll try some.”

When healthy foods become recognizable and accessible, they become part of our daily habits. When Real Food becomes the norm, we won’t need to think twice about the access to nutrition for our children. Until then, the work continues, and I am committed to being a part of the journey.


Georgina Rupp is a freelance writer based in Denver, Colorado. Inspired to pursue writing by her appreciation for the community that gathers around good food, she comes to the Chef Ann team after three years teaching in public education. When she wasn't in the classroom, she spent her afternoons in the cafeteria kitchen alongside students who gained joy and inspiration from cooking nutritious meals. Georgina received her B.A. in Writing from Johns Hopkins University.

Explore more posts tagged with: nutrition education, school food reform
comments powered by Disqus