Chef educator Carla Briggs was born and raised in New Orleans, a city popular for its cultural and culinary diversity, so she knows good food when she tastes it. Armed with a bachelor’s degree in baking and pastry arts and a master’s degree in teaching, Briggs married her love for food and education in her entrepreneurial venture, Eat Your Words Learning Tools, in 2014.
The company develops curriculum for early childhood to equip educators and parents to use food and books to teach literature skills. Faithfully Magazine interviewed Briggs, 34, about her passion for creating change through food.
Tell us about your business, Eat Your Words Learning Tools.
Eat Your Words is a curriculum for early childhood that helps teachers and parents use food and books to teach early literature skills like sequencing, letter and verb recognition, and number recognition. It helps them begin to learn how to comprehend stories and how books inform what they do each and every day in life… [Eat Your Words] builds vocabulary for talking about the food we eat and learning about the foods we can find in books.
What piqued your interest in food?
Growing up in New Orleans, culturally, food and cooking have always been a part of my life. I learned how to cook from my grandmother, mother, and sisters, and it was this quality time of being with family and having conversations about school and things that were going on in life. There was always this fellowship that happened around food that allowed us to talk about the things we were doing in school. I’ve always just had this passion for food because we celebrated it with huge Sunday dinners. I remember setting the table and the experience of coming from church and having this sit-down dinner [for] fellowship. Family was always a part of the foundations of my learning in life, and it just developed this passion for and interest in creating food to continue in that fellowship. It always helped that the food was good during that time. I was always like, “Oh, I like this time. How do I continue to enhance this time?” That was Sunday dinner—the time that we had around dinner just sitting at the table. That was so important.
How did you come up with the idea for Eat Your Words?
I have always believed and been taught through family to follow my dreams. There has always been this interest and encouragement from my family to pursue this art in food, so my mom would find unique opportunities to help me develop that skill. It had always been my dream. I also knew I had grown up in a system that had failed kids in teaching them fundamental skills. I’ve always had this passion of changing the type of school system I attended. A big part of my journey is just going to school and pursuing my passion and always knowing that I wanted to give back to the community that I came from. A part of giving back was knowing that I could fulfill my dream.
I was going after my dream and got my dream job to work at Emeril’s (Emeril Lagasse’s flagship restaurant in New Orleans), but I got injured and couldn’t do my dream job anymore. I had this battle with God of “what do I do now?” He gave me the opportunity to take a teaching assistant job at a local school because I always had this passion for education. I was a teaching assistant in a kindergarten classroom, and I always found that snack time was a perfect time to reinforce the skills of alphabet learning through the snacks we prepared.
One of the first activities that we did was our ABCs with our snacks. Each day there would be a different letter. We would do things like stir fry for “s” or rice pudding for “r.” For the end of the year performance we [also] rewrote The Very Hungry Caterpillar to The Very Hungry Kindergartener, and it showcased all of the different foods we had eaten in class. That’s where that first example of marrying food, education and books kind of happened. As I went through traditional training to become a teacher, I just realized that, when I added food and my gifts and talents to the classroom, kids were more engaged and were missing these key elements like reading skills and [words] they were seeing every day in their food. This is my passion. It is who I am, and I incorporate it into my classroom because I think it’s fun. But the reality is that this can be a tool when framed correctly. It can help students grow and help parents engage in the growth of their students.
What needs did you perceive regarding children and their relationship with food and words? How does Eat Your Words seek to meet those needs?
When we think about vocabulary development and kids being exposed to new words and new foods, we don’t think about it, but it can go hand in hand. If you don’t talk about the food you’re eating, then you’re not developing conversation and words over food. If you go to the grocery store, [imagine] there is an eggplant and a child [asking], “What is an eggplant?” There is a difference in a conversation that is had with a parent who has a high income and a parent who has a low income. There is a different conversation that is typically had because of the parent’s knowledge of the eggplant and also because of the way the conversation goes. It could go, “Oh, I don’t know. We aren’t getting that today. We can’t afford that.” Or, maybe the conversation stops. If a parent engages in the conversation, [the child] begins to develop this knowledge, understanding, and experience of food that is completely different than someone who does not have the exposure to it.
Part of the need is exposing kids to different types of food and giving them the ability to experience those foods. The other part of the need is building those vocabulary skills and giving them the experiences that allow them to grow in vocabulary. They are able to talk about the foods they eat or describe things that are practical to them. It lends to them being able to describe things that are in the world around them. Food is an experience they have multiple times a day and should be a talking point. There’s this statistic of a 30-million word gap of kids that live in poverty compared to those that [do not live in poverty]. It exists because of the lack of…available time, real conversations, continuing conversations, and exposure to new experiences. Food is just an easy way to create those experiences and meet a need to close the gap in education. A lot of things that we see kids not excelling in in education come from those basic early fundamental skills of learning vocabulary and connecting it to experiences.
What are some services or activities that you offer through Eat Your Words?
Eat Your Words focuses in three areas. The first one is to develop skills in early childhood students from pre-K to second grade. [These skills include] the comprehension of story and early vocabulary skills. [We use] tools like snack cards, practical life lessons based in play and felt food to help kids develop these basic skills in literacy. We also train teachers to implement these strategies in their classrooms so that kids have a space to do practical-living activities to develop these literacy skills. [We train] teachers to really look at the child’s perspective in how they implement tools in the classroom. [We teach] teachers how to play again and how to anticipate where some challenges would be for certain students. [We also teach them] how to plan and be intentional in how they use books and food in practical life to teach some very concrete and abstract thoughts about literacy.
Then we create these spaces for parents to engage with their students in a real way at home; we create activities that translate into real practice that parents can use. There is a book called How to Dress a Po’ Boy, which is a story about how to make a traditional New Orleans sandwich. It really helps them to play with their kids and teach them how to put together certain parts of a sandwich. Also, while mommy’s making the sandwich, the child can play with felt food. We just give them a practice that’s fun and engaging for the kid but also connects to some real-life literacy building. Those are the three areas we focus on, and we also partner with other people in early childhood work and help people understand how to advocate for early childhood learning.
You have discussed the relationship between food and words. What relationship with food do you hope to foster through Eat Your Words?
Having a healthy relationship with it. As I was building the tools for Eat Your Words, I made a lot of assumptions that kids just need to eat healthier foods, but the reality is that kids just need to eat food. Kids are very picky eaters and only snack sometimes, so this exposure to real food and eating complete, balanced meals [is important]. One key component is feeling comfortable to actually eat food and having this healthy relationship with it—not this “living-to-eat” kind of mentality but “eating to live.” I want them to have this healthy relationship with food but also teach them to explore and try new things. One of the things that is amazing when people explore is that it allows us to experience different cultures and different people. We can cross so many barriers with people by just entering in at this entry level with them of consuming food from different places. If we try someone else’s cultural food, we find similarities but also identify differences. It opens the door to have a communication with someone who’s not like me.
I find that, when kids are not afraid to try new food or new things, that translates into behaviors of experiencing new things or being able to cross barriers with people. It’s that entry-level. The first five years of a child’s life involve this character-building quality, and if we can begin to build the character and quality that says, “I’m okay with trying new things because it’s going to help me be a better person,” I think that’s as important of a skill as learning how to read. Food exposes us to new people, and books expose us to new people. When we think about how big our God is and how big our world is, that’s a part of it. Across the world one thing that unites us is the food—that we have to eat food. There are differences within it, but we can also embrace those differences and also find common ground.
How does your Christian faith inform the work that you do?
The reality is that I saw the desperate need to help kids learn how to read. I was creative in that aspect through [teaching] at church and volunteering at after-school programs. I saw where kids desperately needed support in certain areas. It didn’t hit home until [I realized] I love reading the Word of God. It shows and exposes the character of God to me. The reality is that when kids can’t read on a basic level—even before anything else—they can’t read and learn about Christ, right? It’s always been this motivating factor that this skill isn’t just a skill needed to complete schoolwork; it is a skill needed to learn more about the character of God. If I can’t read or understand God’s Word just because I don’t have the functional skills then for me that’s a barrier to truly experience who God is.
When teaching Sunday school, that always became a barrier for kids who could not read. Part of believing how big God is and how He’s gifted each of us is [believing] how He is using a gift that He has given me with food to meet a real need in so many creative ways. Because of Him, it is actually meeting and solving a problem that exists. It’s not anything that I would’ve come up with myself because I live in two separate domains. I would just cook all day, or I would just teach all day. He has gifted me and created me to do these things together, and that’s how my faith influences it. Through prayer and commitment to following and being obedient to Him, He has opened doors that I would have never expected, like building Eat Your Words and partnering with organizations like the Louisiana Children’s Museum or 4.0 Schools… It all comes from Him and from faith that He will lead and direct this path.
What hopes and dreams do you have for the future of Eat Your Words?
A big part of just being a woman of color and a minority is to build a successful business in the sense that it has its major impact on the students that we serve but also the community that we engage. I would love to see it impact New Orleans and be in a large percentage of the daycares and classrooms across the city… I would also love it to be recognized nationally as a tool for teachers and students to grow in literacy development. It’s also just an example of a business that honors God in the work that it does in supporting other entrepreneurs that have great ideas and investing in the community around it. Those would be my ultimate goals, but, in the next year, I am just [observing] the growth in students, collecting information about their growth and development, and [hoping to make] a profit I can use to develop more tools for students.
Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers?
Trust God in the process with the gifts that He’s given you. This has been a faith journey. I have not arrived yet, but it’s been exciting to see God grow [Eat Your Words] and move and create opportunities to share what He’s already put in me and created me to be. Eat Your Words is just an example of God’s grace to meet a real need in my community that can also be translated to other communities around the world, and it’s only because of Him.
A version of this interview appears in Faithfully Magazine #4.