Build Community Through Food Poetry

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Online classes suffer from student isolation and a lack of participation. Yet, research has shown that interaction is important for building communities in online courses (Swan, 2010; Thurston, 2007). Presentations can create community (ODLI, 2023), especially through poetry (Christensen, 2000).

One way to increase interaction is to assign slam poetry, a form of spoken word performance art. Slam poetry, poems performed in front of an audience, is more than just reading poems. The poet can bring life and excitement to the poem through storytelling and performance such as volume, rate, and pitch of voice. The topics can be diverse, thought-provoking, and emotional.

A universal topic, food is experiential, tactile, and sensory, aspects that have been devoid in the classroom (Zhen, 2019). Filling the gap to incorporate “foodmaking,” a “theoretically practical activity” (Heldke, 1992, p. 203), in the classroom, we extend it to the online classroom with food as a topic for discussion boards. As educator John Dewey (1981) asserts, society needs well-rounded individuals who can both “think” and “do” (p. 280). Our assignment has students think about how food can be described in literary forms and then do poetry, both in writing and in speaking.

Slam poetry about food engages multiple learning styles: reading, writing, performing, storytelling, and discussion. Food and poetry draw all kinds of people, and students are likely to see themselves represented.

This strategy can be applied across curriculum and for online and blended teaching. Other disciplines can use this slam poetry strategy with artifacts that fit the discipline, i.e., poems in Spanish for a Spanish language class. Additional innovative uses of the strategy are to change the genre from poetry to another discipline-specific form of communication, i.e., math problems that are solved and ‘performed’ in front of the class, either on a digital or physical whiteboard.

Thus, this strategy’s strength lies in its flexible topic and performative genre, which can be tailored across disciplines and modes.

Link to Example artifact(s)

We use this assignment in our JOU: 4930, Food, Media, & Culture at the University of Florida. Students are upper-level journalism students, many of whom are interested in food writing and media.

Learning goals of this assignment are:

– increase descriptive writing skills

– develop oral communication skills

– build community by sharing memories of food

– practice giving feedback

Overview of Food Poetry

Poetry is a way to process feelings and offers a creative outlet to explore new perspectives. Poetry also relies heavily on the senses, which is important in communicating about food. Together, poetry and food create a sense of shared understanding. How could you share a food-related memory or experience through poetry?

Consider the poetry of Pablo Neruda (1904-1973), the famous Chilean poet-diplomat. Read aloud this ode, a lyrical poem that praises an individual idea, here the Onion. Stanza forms vary.

Ode To The Onion by Pablo Neruda

luminous flask,
your beauty formed
petal by petal,
crystal scales expanded you
and in the secrecy of the dark earth
your belly grew round with dew.
Under the earth
the miracle
and when your clumsy
green stem appeared,
and your leaves were born
like swords
in the garden,
the earth heaped up her power
showing your naked transparency,
and as the remote sea
in lifting the breasts of Aphrodite
duplicating the magnolia,
so did the earth
make you,
clear as a planet
and destined
to shine,
constant constellation,
round rose of water,
the table
of the poor.

You make us cry without hurting us.
I have praised everything that exists,
but to me, onion, you are
more beautiful than a bird
of dazzling feathers,
heavenly globe, platinum goblet,
unmoving dance
of the snowy anemone

and the fragrance of the earth lives
in your crystalline nature.

What type of imagery does this poem generate? What aspects of the onion are described? How does this poem make you feel about onions? Neruda’s poem resonates with readers today because you can envision yourself in that scene, admiring the singularity of onions.

Now muse upon the humorous poem by American William Carlos Williams (1883-1963) in “This is Just to Say” (1938):

I have eaten

the plums 

that were in 

the icebox

and which 

you were probably


for breakfast

Forgive me 

they were delicious 

so sweet 

and so cold

Reflect on the poem. What scene is described? Who is the poem directed to? Can you relate to both the poet and who he is talking to?

Though composed in divergent time periods and text, both poems resonate with readers today. Pablo Neruda’s description of the onion focuses on the senses, especially sight, bringing the reader to look at onions, a common food, as beautiful and transcendental. William Carlos Williams’s revelation about the plums can be read from the poet’s perspective and from the audience’s perspective. We also have been tempted by foods that are saved or cherished by others for specific times. We also have been disappointed to realize that the last bite of pie is gone. The emotions and scenes elicited by Neruda and Williams are familiar and universal.

Now, we apply our learning on how poems capture different ways of viewing food with your own food poem.

Discussion: Food Slam Poetry

Part I: Writing

  1. Decide on a food experience that you’ve had. Take inspiration from Neruda and Williams. It can elevate the ordinary (an onion), recreate a particular scene (eating forbidden fruit), or be about the extraordinary (an exquisite dinner).
  2. Draft out at least one word, phrase, or metaphor per sense: sight, smell, sound, taste, and touch.
  3. Use these words to help you describe that experience with more specific words and phrases about the senses, e.g. the caramelized pull of a sticky cinnamon roll; the pop of cherry tomatoes bursting in the oven; hashbrowns sizzling on a hot griddle; an airy chocolate souffle. 
  4. Identify at least one emotional response you want to elicit, e.g., awe, curiosity, amusement, sadness, joy.
  5. Compose your poem with these descriptions and emotions. Think of how words, phrases, and metaphors can recreate your memory.

Part II: Presenting

In this next part, you’ll read your poem out loud and record yourself, either as a video or audio recording. Poetry is most beautiful when shared, especially by the author.

  1. Choose a recording tool: Canvas built-in video recorder or applications such as iMovie, Quicktime, or the video recorder on your cell phones.
  2. Upload your recorded poem reading on the Canvas discussion forum.
  3. Comment on at least two of your classmates’ work. 

Rules for Food Slam Poetry

Here are additional guidelines for our Food Slam Poetry.

  • Any style of poetry is acceptable (sonnet, rhyming, haiku, free verse, acrostic, limerick, and ode) but must include at least 5 descriptions that evoke 3 different senses.
  • The author must perform their own poem.
  • Performances can include music or sound effects (such as cooking and eating sounds).
  • Performances are usually limited to two minutes or less.

Assessment: Your presentation will be assessed on:

  • Content (min 5 specific adjectives that evoke 3 different senses)
  • Presentation (your own voice, minimum 2 minutes, appropriate tone for the topic (e.g. enthusiasm for a birthday party, whispers preparing a midnight snack of grilled cheese)
  • Participation (post with original work on the first due date, 2 response posts by the second due date)
  • See details on rubric.

For online courses, poems can be performed in two ways: 1) pre-recorded or 2) live. Pre-recorded poem readings allow for more polished pieces and include sound effects. Pre-recorded presentations lower anxiety, as students can record it multiple times. This works well for asynchronous classes. Live poetry on the other hand allows for immediate feedback from the audience and creates a lively shared experience and works for synchronous online classes.

Student example: Florida Strawberry

The little dollops of green devours my vision; endlessly

I stride through the panorama of strawberry plants

hugging tightly to the ground, their treasures shine through the dry December soil.

All around, arid expanse – bitter-cold

As though hoping the cruel Sun won’t notice.

Out of the constellation of berries, I select just one

And with one bite, a warm breath of sweetness

A soft kiss that somehow rekindles the feelings of every kiss before,

And yet just as baffling,

It’s entirely new.

Student example: A poem about vodka sauce

I walk into the house, Frank Sinatra booming.

My mother is smiling, at the red wine she’s consuming.

I walk closer to her, to see what she’s making.

This is when I smell, the savory pancetta baking.

She asks me for help, so I take the wooden spoon.

Nothing like pasta on a Sunday afternoon.

I taste-test the sauce, blowing off the steam. 

Tastes like heaven with pancetta, cheese and cream.

Cool Crab and Hot Chicken

Like the white brilliance of careening ocean wave caps

The freshness of the crab salad shines

Coupled with the flaky crisp, golden chicken that aids naps

The marriage of hot and cold is where heaven and earth intertwine

Link to scholarly reference(s)

Christensen, L. (2000). Reading, Writing, and Rising Up: Teaching about Social Justice and the Power of the Written Word. Milwaukee: Rethinking Schools.

Dewey, J. (1981). John Dewey: The Later Works, 1925-1953. Volume 1: 1925. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

Heldke, L. M. (1992). Foodmaking as thoughtful practice. In D.W. Curtin and L. M. Heldke (Eds.), Cooking, Eating, Thinking: Transformative Philosophies of Food. Indiana University Press, pp. 203-229.

ODLI (The Office of Digital Learning & Inquiry). (2023). The Asynchronous Cookbook: Recipes for engaged & active online learning. Middlebury College.

Swan, K. (2002). Building learning communities in online courses: the importance of interaction. Education, Communication, and Information, 2(1), 23-49.

Thurston, A. (2007). Building online learning communities. Technology, Pedagogy and Education, 14(3), 353-369.

Zhen, W. (2019). Food studies: A hands-on guide. Bloomsbury Academic.


Matwick, K., & Matwick, K. (2023). Build Community Through Food Poetry. In deNoyelles, A., Bauer, S., & Wyatt, S. (Eds.), Teaching Online Pedagogical Repository. Orlando, FL: University of Central Florida Center for Distributed Learning.