What Can We Learn From Food?

What does food represent to you, other than something you subsist on? 

When I started to organize the 2015 International Youth Food Culture Contest a few months ago, I was eager to find out how my teenage peers from different parts of the world answer this question. I initiated this annual contest back in 2014 to allow middle and high school students from around the globe to showcase their writing and art talents while expressing their thoughts and passions about food. Learning diverse views about food from peers of different backgrounds would be a wonderful opportunity for me to broaden my own perspectives.

I’m truly grateful that this year’s contest has proven to be a great success. We received outstanding entries from students aged 11 to 18 in North America, Asia, Europe, and Africa. Each of the writing or art works reveals a unique voice about how food has impacted the author’s outlook on identity, culture, family, heritage, environment, community, society, friendship, or creativity. I’m extremely excited to see so many peers around the world are connected in such a positive and engaging way.

With permissions from the authors, I am sharing the voices and stories of eight students from three different continents, each showing a distinct perspective on what they have learned from food—and why.

11-17-15.Image1Malisa Sengdara attends an international school in Vientiane, Laos. Born and raised in the small country along the Mekong River, she struggled with cultural and identity issues at school as she assumed her own background was inferior to those of her international classmates—until one day when she saw how others appreciated her ethnic Lao food. It was food that helped Malisa embrace her own culture and identity. For this 15-year-old girl, food brings cultural pride! To read Malisa’s story, click here.

11-17-15.Image2Angie Lee Xiao Fong of Ipoh City, Malaysia always loves food because her parents have filled her “entire 17 years of life with 17 years’ worth of delicious food.” “When I think of food, the first thing that pops up to my mind is my parents,” she wrote affectionately. Reflecting on how, through food, her parents instilled love and values in her, she expresses her profound love for her parents in her essay. For Angie, food signifies family and love! To read Angie’s essay, click here.


Ananda Wisely, a 17-year-old high school student in the Philippines has a deep appreciation for a peaceful environment and a supportive community. She paints a gorgeous picture of a family being nourished by splendid natural foods thriving under the sun, with images of harvest and farmers in the shaded background. For Ananda, food exemplifies a sustainable ecosystem and a peaceful society! To view Ananda’s painting, click here.

11-17-15.Image4Reet Sethi is 13, and attends American School in Dhaka, Bangladesh. She used to indulge her eating desires and take such liberty for granted until one day she “saw struggling people on the roads … begging for food from door to door.” Realizing there are less fortunate children struggling for food, she voices a powerful, inspiring message in her poem: “Appreciating what I have and helping others will bring to my mind true joy and wonders.” For Reet, food conveys compassion! To read Reet’s reflections, click here.

Image1Isabelle Robles is a high school junior in Iowa. In her poem “Dollop of Sour Cream,” she presents vivid images of Mexican foods to celebrate her family’s Hispanic heritage. Her pride and joy in  her multi- cultural upbringing are manifested efficaciously in her metaphor of herself – “chorizo with a dollop of sour cream.” For Isabelle, food symbolizes heritage and identity! To read Isabelle’s poem, click here.

art-3rdPlaceMelia LaFleur grew up in Hawaii where she is currently attending Kapolei Middle School on the island of Oahu. In her art work “What’s Your Cuisine?” she vividly depicts five people from different countries showcasing specialty foods from their cultures. For the 8th grader, food represents the finest of different cultures! To view Melia’s work, click here.


Melia’s classmate Caitlin Tynanes echoes the same sentiment through her art work. In an animated painting, Caitlin offers a lively portrayal of a joyful scene where people from different parts of the world sit at the same table and share their ethnic foods. For Caitlin, food embodies friendship and cultural appreciation! To view Caitlin’s art work, click here.

Vedika-galleryVedika Luthra was born in India and  raised in Poland where she currently attends American School of Warsaw. “Having being introduced to a variety of international back-grounds, I really appreciate all that is part of a unique culture, such as food,” says the 17-year-old. “I love trying new flavors and creating new recipes. Cooking for me is therapeutic, a way to release stress and to be creative.” For Vedika, food inspires creativity! To view Vedika’s creations, click here.

From these heartfelt words and pictures, we see and feel the power of food in making positive changes in ordinary lives. As demonstrated by the experiences of these individuals, food not only provides humans with sensual enjoyment, but also imparts us with spiritual enlightenment—wisdom that can lead us through times of despair and hardship.

Food can inspire our souls, spark our thoughts, and enrich our lives—in ways that may not seem apparent but are ready to be discovered.

So, ask yourself: How does food relate to my life other than being a source of sustenance? Why?

You may be pleasantly surprised by your own answers.

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