You Are What You Read

Readers to Eaters is the first publisher to focus on children’s books about food, connecting nutritious food to student learning.


A few years ago, as a guest speaker in a social justice presentation at Garfield High School in the Central District, Philip Lee found himself on the receiving end of a response many adults dread from high schoolers: blank stares.

“That’s the thing about talking to kids,” says Philip, a rare sigh on his nearly perpetually smiling face. “Either you have them or you don’t.” So, he switched gears in his presentation, away from discussing his work with Rosa Parks during his early publishing days as cofounder of an award-winning publishing company focused on multicultural children’s literature, and instead started talking about a more recent biographical story, Farmer Will Allen and the Growing Table. He watched the kids perk up, glancing up from their phones to ask incredulously, “Wait — he’s alive?”

“I could see their expression changed,” says Philip. “They were excited to know that Will Allen, a pioneer in urban farming in Milwaukee, is making a difference in his community just by growing food — and that they too can take part in this movement today.”

Stories that embody this empowerment, of community and connection, are the ones that Readers to Eaters (R2E) has endeavored to tell since its launch in 2009. Founded by Philip and his wife, June Jo Lee, a food ethnographer, R2E is the first publisher to focus on children’s books about food.

Thus far, they’ve published eight books, ranging from Zora’s Zucchini, Katherine Pryor’s story of garden abundance, to A Moose Boosh: A Few Choice Words About Food, a whimsical book of poems and art, by Eric-Shabazz Larkin, on how America eats. R2E’s books feature imaginative illustrations and stories that capture potential — the potential for a homely seed to grow into tender leaves of spinach, for example, or the potential for an abandoned lot in a formerly industrial part of town to nourish a community.

In their most recent book, Chef Roy Choi and The Street Food Remix, co-written by June Jo Lee and Jacqueline Briggs Martin and illustrated by graffiti artist Man One, Choi sets out to bring wholesome, inspired, fast-food to underserved neighborhoods in Los Angeles. Named a Sibert Honor Book at the 2018 American Library Association’s Youth Media Awards, Chef Roy Choi is the latest in Martin’s “Food Heroes” series, which has thus far included Will Allen and the Growing Table and Alice Waters and the Trip to Delicious.

“With any business, you start with believing in something, not thinking, ‘this is going to sell a ton,’” says Philip. He believes that healthy food is integral to student learning, and he saw a need to connect them. This gap was one filled by the Black Panthers’ Free Breakfast for Children Program, in 1969, and one that still plagues educators today. To learn, kids need their basic needs met, which includes having access to nutritious food.

Working in educational advocacy, Philip was struck by the achievement gap, racial disparities in performance. He was told by policy makers: “We don’t have a learning problem in schools, we have a public health problem in schools.” Kids not getting the healthy food they need to thrive is a problem of enormous size and reach — intertwined with income inequality, health care access, and safe housing — but that didn’t intimidate Philip. “I saw clearly that so many social issues that impact student learning — I couldn’t help but get involved,” he says, uttering the phrase that should be printed on his business card.

When Philip and June Jo established R2E in 2009, they felt that the United States was at a tipping point: Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma had made food a central conversation piece the year before, and Michelle Obama’s garden at the White House was inspiring people across the country to learn about food systems. “The public awareness was there,” says Philip, “and we launched Readers to Eaters two months later.”

Readers to Eaters’ mission is two-pronged: to publish stories about diverse food cultures and to promote food literacy from the ground up. When Philip says food literacy, he means gaining knowledge about the food system: what and how we eat. The what is where food comes from, and the how is just as key — it’s the lifestyle and culture of food, he says. R2E’s stories hit on both of these and, like food itself, have the potential to naturally bring people together.

As a children’s book publisher, Philip’s core audience is schools and libraries. The extent to which schools are in tune with — and are able to support — the connection between good food and student learning varies drastically. Regardless, it’s a system that tends to silo people: The school nutrition director, classroom teacher, sports coach, and school gardener each knows that food plays an important role in their students’ learning, but rarely come together. Going far beyond the expectations of a typical publisher, Philip strives to fill in these gaps, working with farm-to-school programs, school gardens, and summer meal programs at public libraries.

Philip has worked to introduce new programs, such as collaborating with the Washington State Farmers Market Association to pair free books with EBT, bringing books and nutritious food into the households that often need them the most. “Of course,” says Philip, “food deserts are also literacy deserts.”

For years, Philip has worked with Craig Seasholes, a teacher-librarian at Dearborn Park International Elementary School and president of the Washington Library Association. Like Philip, Craig sees the power of food to invigorate and connect communities, even if this means taking on work that falls beyond his job description.

At Dearborn Park, Craig helped facilitate a summer program where kids lived out the reading-to-eating concept. At a Title 1 school where 80 percent of its 380 students are eligible for free or reduced lunch, Dearborn students who otherwise wouldn’t have had access to summer programming spent time in the school garden. With Craig and a couple of instructional assistants, the students learned about and tended to the plants. They read R2E books and made their own books, as well as did math related to gardening. “This work is so important because project-based, cross-disciplinary learning really works for kids,” says Craig.

In addition, libraries, as a community space, often play the role of feeding sites, providing low-income children with food in the summer. “Both food and libraries are connectors,” says Deborah Sandler, children’s services librarian at Seattle’s Central Library. “Readers to Eaters doesn’t want to just build a better food community, but wants to build a better community through food. And Philip does that so beautifully.”

The desire to build on connections is what inspired Philip to spearhead Food Literacy Month a few years ago. In 2015, Washington Governor Jay Inslee proclaimed September Food Literacy Month, making Washington the second state, after California, to officially dedicate a month to promoting food education. The celebration, which took place at Central Library, was kicked off by First Lady of Washington Trudi Inslee, and included a panel of local chefs and food activists, moderated by Philip.

Later this year, R2E will release Bread Lab!, a book that explores the science and fun of breadmaking, in collaboration with The Bread Lab at WSU. “Food is the starting point to the conversation that allows for all kinds of connections — to culture to health to justice,” says Philip. “And I think it allows for kids to feel so much more empowered with their stories. And that, for me, is the big pay-off.”

Nicole Capozziello grew up in her family’s Italian restaurant in Wisconsin. She is a freelance writer and a tour guide at Theo Chocolate.

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