Thursday, January 14, 2010

School Lunches: A Nutritious Feast

Ideas for a new post have been swirling in my head for many weeks now. But what with the holidays and a jam-packed trip to the northeast, and now I am swamped with schoolwork, there hasn't been a good time to write.

I now realize, there won't be a good time to write for the foreseeable future. I am just beginning an intensive 6 month certification program to become a full-fledged high school science teacher by August, which is exciting because I am committing to working in public schools for many years to come! What is less exciting is the prospect of having little time to grow my own vegetables, peruse farmers markets, cook delicious meals, and blog about my frustrations over our food system.

So here is my latest post, written after a long day of work, a staff meeting over drinks and a few hours of school work to boot. Oh boy.

Last summer, when Kris and I had just moved to a new state and were having trouble finding jobs, I had a few moments of "so this is what it's like to not have enough money to eat well." We shopped at Walmart because it was the only way to afford "fresh" fruits and vegetables. I didn't purchase anything from a farmer's market until my mom visited in October and took pity on me. And we ate off of the value menu at Wendys more times than I would care to admit. It was our version of "eating out".

Although we didn't have enough money to buy the bounty of fresh ingredients that I had become accustomed to, I sort of relished this experience. I thought that it gave me a deeper understanding of the conflicts that countless families across the country face every day, over meals and money and nutrition.

And then I went to the Community Club. Because my middle school closed a week before Christmas, the organization that I work for sent me to work at a different site. This particular Community Club is funded by the same organization as my own, school-based program, and it runs after school programs on school days, and something more like an all day summer camp when school is not in session. So off I went, excited at the prospect of doing arts and crafts with kids all day and not having to worry about managerial/administrative crap.

I will never complain about food in schools again.

Okay, not true. But that's how I felt after experiencing snack and meal times at a student center that is not affiliated with a school. No after school snack program, or school lunch program, or school breakfast program for that matter.

Children attend the program from 8:30 am to 5:30pm, and it's clear that when they arrive, most of them have not eaten breakfast. The kids are told to bring their own lunches, but most of them do not. Despite the Community Club's consistent reminders to parents that they do not provide lunch during school vacation, parents assume that we won't let their kids go hungry. And, we don't.

Well, not really. There aren't enough resources to buy food for nutritious lunches, so when a student doesn't have a lunch, he or she must wait until a staff can find the time to locate a cold hot dog, a stale hot dog bun and a 99 cent bag of potato chips or, here it comes, Hot Cheetos.

The children - some are as young as 5 and 6 years old - bear their hunger quietly, and a bit grumpily. And when snack time rolls around they are rewarded with another 99 cent bag of chips. This is not, I must add, the fault of the staff at the Community Club. There is little money for food (it's not in the budget after all, since they do not officially provide lunch).

The Community Club must make wise food choices. Food is cheapest in bulk, and bulk foods are not typically of the fresh variety. In fact, the staff is mindful to buy foods that last for a long period of time, since they are not in the habit of serving full meals each day. So hot dogs and chips it is.

The food situation in schools is often appalling, but it is a nutritious feast when compared with programs that are underfunded and independent from school systems. While working at the Community Club, I ended up sharing my own lunch 5 different ways with the littlest ones. A bag of baby carrots for one first grade girl, an apple for a little boy; a cheese and tomato sandwich on pitabread, split two ways; and a blueberry yogurt for another hungry, snotty-nosed child. I felt as if I were a relief worker in a war-torn country, handing out meager rations to starving children.

This sounds a bit dramatic, I know, but the circumstances were dire. I certainly did not relish the experience, like my weeks of forced Walmart and Wendys excursions. While I got to play the part, these students live this reality and it is far worse than the mushy-green-bean-and-chicken-nugget-reality of school cafeterias.

School lunches, I now understand, are the greatest (if not only) source of essential nutrients for many children. A shocking realization, but an even greater reason to improve the nutritional content of foods served in schools. I'll save my fresh, local, slow-food and organic rants for another time.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Nutrition and Physical Activity (not diet and exercise)

One of my aforementioned obese middle-schoolers - I'll call him James - came into my office today.  James spends a good portion of his lunchtime with me everyday.  He sits next to his assistant principal in the cafeteria, eats as fast as possible, and then retreats to the sauna that is my office for the remaining 20 minutes.

I am usually too busy to talk to him for the whole period -  he spends most of the time quietly reading his book - so I know that he's not there for my company.  My suspicion is that he gets teased incessantly if he spends too much unsupervised time with his peers, so he avoids social situations like the plague, especially with anyone under the age of 18.  On this particular day Joe was sitting at the desk next to me when James arrived for his lunchtime visit. 

"Joe, what's the prize for the Best Ornament Competition?" James inquired.

"A big bag of Hot Cheetos and Snickers," Joe replied with a straight face and a glance in my direction.  Unable to summon even a hint of a smile, I glared at him, told James that it was time to head to class, and stormed out of the room.

As I aimlessly wandered the hallways, avoiding my own office, I found solace in the fact that Joe was not going to give anyone Hot Cheetos or Snickers, at least not on my watch.  My efforts earlier this semester had made sure of that.  Joe mentions junk food to me at least once a day, with a sinister chuckle, and it irks me to no end.  But if junk food exists only as part of a gross, seriously unfunny joke, then I can live with that.  Hopefully James didn't hear Joe's joke this afternoon, or at least forgot about it, because offering junk food as an incentive is probably just as bad as actually giving it (minus the calories).  Especially to an obese child!

But the mere absence of junk food is not enough to combat obesity.  I realized that since I have James' undivided attention on most days of the week, I have a great opportunity to discuss diet and exercise with him.  While eating my own lunch at my desk,  I pulled up the old Google standby and began to do some research ...

At first I entered "intervention childhood obesity" and browsed through some dense PDF files about public health interventions, carbonated beverage consumption and the impact of decreased fat and sugar consumption on weight.  The studies that I found were focused on large-scale school interventions, family-based approaches and recommendations for doctors and hospitals.  Blah.  Not what I wanted.

I am not a doctor, I do not have an obese child and I am not running a double-blind randomized control trial with 10 different middle schools.  Realizing that this blog is about my daily interactions and experiences with kids, I took a step back and changed my search words to: "How to talk to an obese child."

BINGO! Hundreds of accessible, parent and mentor-friendly websites about how to talk to obese children about their weight.  Many of the suggestions don't apply to me because I, for the most part, do not have control over choices that are made at home about food or the amount of time James is allowed to spend watching TV.

Here, however, are a few of the tips that I found quite helpful:

- Use the words nutrition and physical activity, instead of diet and exercise.

- Don't use the word obeseOverweight is much more effective and allows for a discussion about weight, without implied judgment.

- According to Scholastic Magazine, the only conclusive indicator of obesity in children is the amount of time spent watching television.  Be sure to include television and the importance of alternative activities in conversations with children about weight!

Some of the suggestions that my readers gave on this topic a few weeks ago were also quite insightful. Like starting a class for the overweight children in my afterschool program, and keeping food logs and feelings journals.  This would be quite an endeavor, however, since I would need to dedicate programming time and prep time to designing and implementing an effective class.  And I'd need the buy-in of my supervisor and my students, which is no easy task.

One of the tips that I found while perusing websites such as and was to bring up the topic of overweight in a natural way.  The example was to gently ask, on the way home from a doctor's appointment, "You heard the doctor say you're gaining weight too quickly. Do you want to talk about what we can do to help?" James' mother does not wash his clothes for him, or even point out the fact that his clothes are filthy.  I don't even know if she takes him to the doctor.  So I am fairly certain that she has not taken the time to discuss his weight with him in a gentle manner.

Starting a conversation about weight is even trickier for a teacher or mentor because there are fewer natural moments, like doctors appointments, to bring it up.  Beginning the conversation is one of the greatest obstacles for me when I think about discussing weight with the kids in my program.

Many web suggestions revolved around doing activities as a family, like taking walks or bikerides together to "get in shape".  Now this seems a little easier.  Perhaps James and I could take a walk together during lunchtime, instead of sitting in my office.  I know I could use the fresh air.  I'll have to ask his assistant principal if it's okay, but since she previously asked me to get James involved in physical activity after school, I'm sure it won't be a problem.  Walks are also a great time time for sensitive conversations.

An article that I came across at said it best:"Obesity needs to be treated like illness it is. Shame, harassment and avoidance are inappropriate and counter-productive. If your child had pneumonia or eczema, you would care for the child and help them cope them heal from the conditions. Obesity is an illness and should be treated as such."

I can't let my own fears or hang-ups prevent me from bringing up such an important topic with a child.  And I hope that others who are teachers and mentors and care givers will consider having the same conservation with the overweight children that they know.  After all, spending a few minutes here and there to encourage better nutrition and more physical activity could save these children a lifetime of medical problems and shame.  Those of us who care deeply about child health and nutrition need to counteract the irresponsible Joes of the world, and step up when parents are absent on the subject of weight.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Joe is Back

Well, folks, Joe is back.  And I just realized that I never even told you that he was gone.  About a week after the nose ring incident (see post from Sept. 22) - and many hours spent wishing that he would disappear from my life - Joe suddenly stopped showing up for work and was granted sick leave indefinitely.  I was able to hire a new staff member to temporarily fill his position, and Hot Cheetos vanished.  I almost forgot that they existed.  We've been serving apples and bananas as supplemental snacks on days that there's no dinner, and except for our trip to Chilis, I feel good about the nutritional content of foods that we serve after school.

Enter, Joe.  Just as quickly as he disappeared, he reappeared in my office one afternoon last week.  I suppose that I am glad he is feeling better, but I can't say I was glad to see him.  His first course of action was to distribute hundreds of fliers for the Hispanic Futures Conference (HFC).  The theme of this year's conference: "Graduate Ready: College, Career, Life."  The conference is undeniably a wonderful event, a way to provide resources and inspiration to Hispanic teens who are considering college after they graduate.  And yes, it's important to talk to middle schoolers about college too; you want to plant that seed early, and many of them don't hear about college at home.  However, our students are mostly 6th graders who are just adjusting to a new school and maybe, just maybe, have thought about high school once or twice.

As Joe handed out the fliers, the students jumped up and down with excitement, asked for more, and thanked Joe profusely.  I was baffled by the response.  That is, until I looked at the flier myself.  You can see a copy of the flier that was posted around our school at the HFC website.  Yet the flier that Joe passed out had an additional attachment: a coupon for a "buy one get one free" Whopper at Burger King.  I had noticed Burger King and Dr. Pepper logos on the original flier, and felt a fleeting frustration that we are helping to advertise these companies in a school.  But I brushed the feeling aside, acknowledging that HFC undoubtedly needs big corporate sponsors to pull off such a large and important event, a reality that I am willing to live with.

But a coupon for a Whopper?! Is it really necessary to use fast food as a means for promoting post-high school education?  The kids begged for more fliers all week, and let me tell you, it wasn't because they were excited about HFC and wanted to tell all their friends.  The had gone to the Burger King across the street with their friends after school, and now they wanted to go again.

A lot of these students, particularly the Hispanic ones, don't frequent Burger King, or McDonalds or KFC for that matter.  It's not a part of their culture - yet - and it had probably never occured to them that a Whopper would make a good after school snack.  Unfortunately, by handing out these fliers we are sending a message loud and clear - from school administrators and after school staff who these kids really look up to - that fast food is cool! And the excitement expressed by the few children who do frequent Burger King, was enough to send the whole group into a fast food frenzy.

Thanks Joe, thanks a lot.

Once again, I am faced with the food as an incentive dilemma.  In Food Food Food! this week, the teachers from the Sustainable Food Center taught the kids how to make guacamole.  No one wanted to attend the class, until they were told they would get to eat chips and dip.  So the class quickly filled up and the kids learned how to chop onions and tomatoes and avocados.  The teachers even snuck in a lesson on nutrition labels.  At the end, one student begged to take home the unused half of the lime, and they all chowed down on the deliciously green guacamole.  If the kids chose Food Food Food! simply because it meant more snacks, and they learned something about food and nutrition and cooking in the process, well I'm okay with that.

But I am more troubled by the Whopper coupon.  At some high schools in Austin, particularly the ones that my students will attend, the graduation rates are well below 50 percent.  Heck, the average graduation rate for Texas high schools is 33 percent! And you can imagine how few of those students attend or graduate from college or technical schools.  Post high-school education needs to be discussed.  Students need to be motivated, inspired, educated about their options.  But at what cost? 

Are fast food coupons really the most effective way to motivate and inspire our youth?

Sunday, November 22, 2009

A Chili's Experience

As my world rushes into a holiday, food-filled frenzy, I find I spend even more time thinking about food (if that's possible) but have less time to write about it.  So here are a few observations, to be mulled over and followed up on when more time presents itself.

Our school was selected to attend a fund-raising banquet at the Four Seasons Hotel.  For this event, 13 of our best behaved middle schoolers received brand new "Sunday Best" attire, which they proudly wore with big grins, and they got to keep the clothes afterward.  The kids worked very hard at the banquet, greeting incredibly rich (and white, and patronizing) donors, and posing for pictures with them, without any food or drink as compensation.

Out of guilt - it was 9pm when they were finally dismissed, and famished! - I took them to Chili's (believe it or not, it was their choice, not mine), and I told them they could order whatever they wanted.  The Four Seasons was an eye-popping experience for my teens, but the wealth there was beyond comprehension.  Chili's was something new and different, and more tangible.  Most of my middle schoolers had never been to a sit down restaurant before, did not know how to navigate the menu or order their meal.  With three exceptions, the kids ordered off of the kid's menu and many of them ordered rice and corn as their sides, instead of french fries.  I was really shocked by this, assuming that they would gorge themselves on the greasiest foods they could find (and that I would feel remorse for days for taking them to a chain restaurant that serves incredibly salty and fatty foods).

Two Chili's case studies:

(1) An obese, African-American, 12 year old female.  Becomes lethargic and withdrawn before meal times - more than your average low blood sugar episode - but perks right up the instant she eats.  Participates in all Food Food Food! activities and field trips.  At Chili's she devoured a Bacon Cheeseburger (off the regular menu) and a basket of french fries and 2 large glasses of Sprite.  She asked for more soda, but I said no (and then tried to engage her in a conversation about the negative effects of so much sugar).  Despite our conversation about diet and sugar, she ate three times as much dessert as everyone else. 

(2) Incredibly thin and lanky, recent Cuban immigrant, 11 year old male.  Has lots of energy, all the time.  Ordered the same Bacon Cheeseburger, mostly because he looks up to the aforementioned student and wants to be just like her.  While waiting for the food he asked if he could have dessert and I told him that if he could finish his whole meal, I would buy him dessert.  When the food arrived he took a total of two bites of his meal and then complained about how his arms hurt from trying to hold the massive burger.  He sat quietly in his chair for the rest of the evening, clutching his stomach.  He did not eat dessert.

Both incidents left me with pressing questions about my students, and their relationships with food.  The first is how to engage with obese students.  I have plenty of experience - and an arsenal of tools in my back pocket - dealing with anorexic and bulimic young women, teens who are angry and aggressive, and those who are depressed, anxious and suicidal.  But I have very little experience when it comes to overweight teens who use food to self-medicate.

I have two students in my afterschool program who fit into this category.  Their family members are also overweight, their home lives are unstable, they are incessantly teased, and they are already suffering from weight-related health problems.  A project for the post-holiday season is to research how to talk with these students about food.  They are both dedicated members of my Food Food Food! class, but lessons on serving sizes and added sugars, and our farm field trips, do not seem to resonate with them.  The root of their overeating is clearly not a lack of knowledge about nutrition, nor a lack of resources to purchase healthy foods.  Although not wealthy, their families have more resources than most at my school.  For them, eating is emotionally driven, and I am unsure about how to address the issue without feeding into the related teasing and insecurities that consume these two students.

The other issue, that I have mentioned in previous posts, is my own observation that Hispanic students tend to have more healthy and balanced diets than their white and black counterparts, regardless of economic standing.  A quick Google search revealed an overwhelming amount of academic and government funded research on this topic, which I am excited to delve into once I have some more time on my hands.  I mean, I know I'm all about the qualitative, first-hand observation, but it would be really gratifying, and perhaps enlightening, to have some quantitative, statistical data to support what I have personally found to be true.

So I have lots to ponder over while I chow down on turkey and sweet potatoes and stuffing this week.  And I would really like to hear from any of my wonderful readers who have their own insights about Hispanic-American diets, or any resources to offer on how to engage with obese teens about food.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Joy of Camping

Last time we planned an outing that included food, my supervisor made a trip to Walmart and returned with plastic bags full of white bread and white hot dog buns, Hot Cheetos and Capri Sun drinks.  This time, as we organized our weekend camping trip with seventeen kids in our after school program, I did the shopping with the help of a worthy ally.

$182 later, we were satisfied with the healthy choices we had made, balancing flavor, nutrition and cost.  Unfortunately, I too had to shop at Walmart, since our organization possesses a tax-exempt Walmart Card, but this allowed me to spend freely and purchase food in the quantities that I needed.  A necessary compromise in my mind, because purchasing groceries for twenty people at the farmers market would have been incredibly expensive.  Not to mention that the farmers markets in Austin were simply not open during the times that I could steal away from work to purchase food.  Sadly, my desire to purchase affordable, nutritious food for my middle schoolers trumped my desire to support local farmers and expose the kids to fresh, chemical-free produce.

The van ride to a local state park was hands-down my least favorite part of the trip.  Thirteen screaming 12 year olds - the rest of the kids were in another car - chattering and yelling with uncontrollable excitement and making every kind of face and gesture they could think of to the other vehicles who were struck in traffic alongside us.  And of course, pulling imaginary cords from the ceiling and pumping their arms up and down to make the truck drivers honk their horns.  Pure hell.

However, once we arrived at the secluded and gorgeous campsite, the fun began.  Two other staff members and I taught the kids how to set up their tents and start a campfire.  With red hot coals and a roaring campfire, we cooked hamburgers and hot dogs and corn.  Whole wheat buns of course.  I had wanted to purchase fresh corn, still nestled in the husk, but corn is currently out of season in Texas so we had to settle for frozen corn-on-the-cob.  About half the students ate the corn, and a few asked for seconds; none of them put butter on the yellow kernels, even though we provided it.  As far as I could tell, no one overate and each student thoroughly enjoyed the process of preparing and devouring their smokey, slightly charred dinners. 

Of course we served s'mores, which was a new experience for most of the campers.  A co-worker later asked me what I was so particular about what I allowed the children to eat, but had no qualms about serving marshmellows and chocolate bars post-meal.  Trying not to sound frustrated, I explained the difference between engaging in the preparation of food - especially when it is something that is traditional and integral to an experience - and simply opening a package, with a great pop, and munching on its sugary contents without a thought to how it is produced or what is in it.

After dinner the kids ran around with their flashlights and the boys stormed the girls' tents, and vice versa.  They stayed up far too late, disrupting countless fellow campers, but they were so excited and having so much fun, that it was hard to be angry.

For breakfast we toasted bagels over hot coals and slathered them with cream cheese or butter.  One student put both on her bagel while I wasn't looking, so we had a short - but hopefully meaningful - conversation about why that was not such a good idea, no matter how tasty it was.  All of the kids ate a banana while we waited for the coals to heat up, and most of them continued to run around, exploring the woods and working up an appetite, before and after breakfast. 

After a short hike and a swim at a nearby waterfall pool, we served lunch to some very ravenous middle schoolers.  This was the meal that received the most complaints.  Each plate - regrettably the plates were styrofoam - contained a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on whole wheat bread.  Accompanied by a handful of baby carrots, a spoonful of ranch dip, a couple of crackers, an apple and a 100% apple juice, juice box.  A handful of my Mexican-American students had never had PB&J before, so the meal was exciting - or in a few cases, disgusting - for them.  The majority complained about the carrots, and the whining reached a higher pitch when I informed them that they had to eat their carrots and apple if they wanted a cup of the hot cocoa that we were making over the fire.

"I don't care, the hot chocolate is sugar free anyway," a girl shouted.  After she saw the puzzled expression on my face, she preempted, "I saw the box last night when we were eating dinner."

I picked up the hot chocolate package to inspect it, and saw that across the front was written the phrase "no sugar added."

"Don't you remember our conversation about added sugars, when we did the soda presentation?" I asked.

"What does soda have to do with hot chocolate?" the student retorted.  Sigh.  So we had another conversation, this time for students who aren't in my Food Food Food! class to hear, about added sugars and natural sugars and the consequences of high sugar consumption.  With a few exceptions, the hot chocolate incentive worked and the kids finished their fruits and veggies and happily sipped on cups of hot cocoa.

Earlier in the week I had informed my students that they would not be allowed to bring any food with them on the camping trip.  We would provide all meals and snacks.  They protested heavily, but I didn't catch a single one with food that I did not provide, and once we pulled away from the school, no one complained about a lack of food, or junk food, either.  Food-wise, fun-wise and experientially, the trip was a roaring success.

Most of the kids had never been camping before.  And bagels, PB&J and s'mores were new food experiences for many of them.  Engaging so thoughtfully in the preparation of each meal was also new for most students and seemed to eliminate most of the complaints and begging for alternatives that usually accompany meal times with these kids.  I wonder what would happen if middle schoolers were involved and engaged in food preparation on a regular basis.  How would it change their diets and their relationships with food?

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Too Much Sugar

I had quite an eventful week.  We had a visit from "the Russians" - as my supervisors kept calling them - who were merely a group of volunteers from a school district somewhere in Russia, observing how we do things in the great state of Texas.  The main event, however, was Family Night, to celebrate our thriving after school program.  From an organizational standpoint, it was a bit of disaster; but from a food perspective, it was a great success!

Alongside the usual dinner fare - which on that night was some kind of casserole with mushy, grey green beans and canned peaches - my boss' Puerto Rican mother-in-law was kind enough to prepare chicken enchiladas and an almond cake for our guests.  The day before I had eaten in the cafeteria - more out of convenience than curiosity - and my very orange meal had consisted of chicken enchiladas, corn bread, refried beans, an orange and a carton of plain milk.  The home made enchiladas were significantly more tasty and less salty, and no doubt healthier, than the ones served that week in the cafeteria, 

In addition to the home cooking that we provided to our middle schoolers and their families, Food Food Food! had quite a presence at the event.  During Food Food Food! class that day, just hours before the celebration, our students learned how to make hummus, as well as a pesto-parmesan dip, with the help of staff from the Sustainable Food Center.  After tasting it themselves, and excitedly changing into their "uniforms" - black t-shirts and jeans - a handful of sixth and seventh graders who consistently attend the Food Food Food! class served the dips that they had made, with fresh vegetables and big grins, to their parents and fellow students.  The baby carrots were more popular than the dips, but it added elegance to the evening, and exposed dozens of parents and children alike to fresh and healthy appetizers.  Needless to say there were no Hot Cheetos at Family Night. 

Food Food Food! students also observed and then presented a "sugar in soda" demonstration during Family Night.  It went something like this:

"The USDA recommends that we should consume between 6 and 18 teaspoons of added sugar each day.   Added sugars are sweeteners that don't occur naturally in foods, like white and brown sugars, corn syrup, honey and molasses.  These are different than sugars that exist naturally in foods like fruits and milk. 

"Here is a 12 oz can of soda [hold up empty Pepsi].  How many teaspoons of sugar do you think are in a can of Pepsi?"

"5!" "8!" "20!"

"There are 11 teaspoons of sugar in each can of Pepsi, or Coke, or any other non-diet soda"


"How many teaspoons of sugar do you think are in a 20 oz bottle of Pepsi?" [hold up empty bottle]

"15!" "24!" "17?"

"You are exactly right.  There are 17 teaspoons of sugar in every 20 oz bottle of Pepsi.  So if you drink one bottle of soda, how much sugar - according to the USDA - should you consume for the rest of the day?"

"No more than 1 teaspoon!"

"Hmm, okay, that doesn't sound like much.  What other foods contain added sugars?"

"Cookies," "candy," "chocolate."

"You are exactly right.  But what about foods that aren't just snacks? Did you know that pasta sauce, fruit drinks, cereal, chocolate milk and bread all have added sugar in them?  Do you think it's possible to eat less than 18 teaspoons of added sugar if you drink a 20 oz bottle of soda that day?"

"Uhh, I don't know," "I don't think so," "No way!"

"What do you think can happen if you eat more than 18 teaspoons of added sugar every day?"

"You get fat!"

"Yes, you can definitely gain weight.  You are also probably not getting enough of the important nutrients that your body really needs to function healthily, like protein and calcium and the vitamins that are in fruits and vegetables."

"I heard that if you eat too much sugar you get diabetes."

"If you consume too much sugar then you often gain weight, particularly around your stomach, and become obese.  There is strong link between obesity and Diabetes Mellitus, also known as Type II Diabetes.

"Instead of drinking soda, we have switched to a fruit juice sparkler.  All you have to do is buy a bottle of sparkling or seltzer water and a carton of 100 percent fruit juice.  Pour half a glass of sparkling water and then fill the rest of the glass with juice." [Students demonstrate with juice and sparkling water, and offer plastic cups of fruit juice sparkler to audience members.]

"Mmmm, that's good," "I thought we were going to get to drink soda! Hrumph ..." "Yummy."

"If you switch to the juice sparkler, instead of soda, then you aren't consuming any added sugars, just a small amount of sugars that occur naturally in fruits.  You also benefit from different vitamins that are in fruit juice."

There were certainly mixed reactions to the demonstration, and I was surprised by the number of people who were disappointed that we weren't serving soda, since we had invited them to watch a "soda demo".  Were they listening at all?! But overwhelmingly students and their parents enjoyed the taste of our juice sparkler and appeared to walk away with some food for thought.  It was most rewarding to see how excited my students, who presented the demo, were about the juice sparkler and the information that they had just learned and shared about added sugars and soda.  I know that they will continue to drink soda, but hopefully this little demonstration planted a seed for future healthy decisions. 

I rarely see students drinking soda, because thankfully there are no soda machines in the school (except in the teacher's lounge) and students are not allowed to bring their own during the school day.  Although many afterschool staff would allow them to drink soda, most students haven't caught on to the disparities between school day and afterschool rules, and most don't bother to test the junk food limits after 3:30pm.  Soda consumption is not a visible problem at my middle school, yet I am sure that students and their parents guzzle it at home. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, most teenagers consume soda at least once a week, and on average female and male teens who drink soda consume 23 and 32 oz of soda per day, respectively.  Although it has been documented that Hispanic children and teenagers consume less soda and junk food that their white and black counterparts, I'm sure that my mostly Hispanic students drink soda and I plan to check in with them in a few weeks to see if our demonstration had any impact on their beverage choices.  I will also make a concerted effort to serve and drink the fruit juice sparkler during after school programming, to model and reinforce the importance of forgoing soda for healthier drinks. 

I can't say that Family Night was not a stressful event for me, but I am happy to report that my students and I took full advantage of the opportunity to demonstrate what we have learned in Food Food Food! this semester: we provided samples of new recipes and wisdom about the often unhealthy contents of our favorite foods and beverages.  As my metaphorical apple tree continues to grow, I hope that the rivers of soda and sugar are slightly tempered by the sharing of knowledge, student engagement and personal investment in creating healthier schools and communities.

Friday, October 16, 2009

I couldn't do it!

Alright, I must confess, I only ate school lunch twice this week.  Partly due to circumstances beyond my control, and partly because I just did not want to.

Many people think that because I pay so much attention to food and advocate for healthy, locally-sourced diets, that I am some kind of nutritional purist.  They assume that I am a fun-hating vegan who runs 10 miles a day, obsessively counts calories and judges the food choices of everyone around me.  Anyone who knows me, knows that this could not be farther from the truth. 

I have a weakness for salt and vinegar chips, Cheezits, sour patch kids, ice cream of any kind, french fries, boneless buffalo wings, pizza and good beer ... and I rarely hesitate to treat myself to these sweet, fatty and salty treats.  But the thing is, on your average day, I manage to get my 3-5 servings of fruits and veggies, I eat oatmeal and whole grains, I drink lots of water, and I stop eating before I get too full.  This means that just about whenever I get the urge to go to eat an ice cream cone, or visit my favorite chain restaurant, Chilis - please don't judge me - I go, and I eat whatever I want when I'm there. (I should note that there are a number of negative implications of eating at chain restaurants - unrelated to diet - that include poor treatment of workers, reduced patronage for independent, local businesses and farms, and lack of cultural and dietary diversity). 

So what does this have to do with school lunches? Well, I didn't want to eat a soggy chicken patty sandwich and undercooked french fries on Wednesday because then I'd have wasted my junk food allotment for the day.  And I didn't want the students to see me eating fried food, lest they get the wrong idea (they don't know that I had oatmeal for breakfast and will have a grilled chicken salad when I get home).  Instead, if I had eaten a hummus and cheese sandwich on a whole wheat pita, with lots of veggies, some yogurt and a piece or two of fruit - like I do when I'm not forcing myself to eat cafeteria food - then I could have stopped for pizza on the way home, without worrying about my nutritional intake for the day.  And I wouldn't have been sending a message to students, who view me as a role model, that it's okay to eat chicken patties and french fries for lunch.  Besides, dinnertime is when I crave greasy, comfort food the most, not during breakfast or lunch when I still have energy and work to do, and don't want to be weighed down by a heavy meal. 

I don't think that children (or adults for that matter) should stop eating Doritos, Snickers bars and pizza.  I simply believe that the basis of their diet should be well-balanced and fresh, so that when they inevitably eat that bag of Doritos on their way home from school, or there's a pizza party in their classroom, we are not adding insult to injury. 

It is the job of educators, mentors and parents to model and encourage healthy habits, and educate students about the benefits of positive decision making.  Most people accept this role, particularly where drugs, alcohol, cigarettes and sex are concerned.  The philosophy also pertains to modeling effective study habits, good manners and appropriate dress.  However, I am certain that the majority of teachers and service providers go home and have a drink after work, swear when they get upset, some smoke cigarettes, others procrastinate and leave chores, studying and paying the bills to the last minute.  Whatever we do in our private lives, we refrain as much as possible from making unhealthy choices when children are present, because we are dedicated to helping them develop a solid foundation in healthy decision making.

Why doesn't the same philosophy apply to food? We all eat junk food, some more than others.  But does that mean that it is okay to eat Doritos in front of children, or worse, provide children with fried lunches or sugary soda?  I, obviously, would argue that it is not okay.  Personally, I don't want to be responsible for increased junk food consumption because a child who looks up to me saw me eating a Snickers bar and a Coke for lunch (this is more common in schools than you might think).  From what I can tell, cafeterias provide both healthy and unhealthy options for lunch.  By offering fried chicken and french fries as an option, aren't we sending a clear message that it is acceptable to routinely eat unhealthy, unbalanced meals for what is often  students' main meal of the day?  Especially when teachers opt for the unhealthy meal, in plain sight of their students, which is inevitable when the green beans are soggy and the pinto beans are non-existent. 

Teachers in my school are required to dress business-casual and jeans are frowned upon.  Similarly, our students must wear khaki pants and solid color shirts without text (no tank tops).  Now, obviously teachers don't dress this way in their homes, nor do students. We don't expect them to.  But we are modeling and encouraging a dress code that demonstrates respect and professionalism, and instills values that will ensure future success in the workplace and in how students view and present themselves.  And we certainly don't hand out tiny tank tops with the school logo, or short shorts with the school name across the behind.  So why do we serve french fries and drink Coke in front of our students? Unhealthy food habits not only reduce attentiveness, energy and self-esteem, but they are directly linked to an inexhaustible list of illnesses and disease. 

Unhealthy food should be a treat, an exception to the rule.  It is the responsibility of teachers and caregivers to help students develop healthy habits that will endure for a lifetime.  At school, we don't offer our students coffee or beer or cigarettes, and we don't wear shirts that reveal cleavage or hidden tattoos, so why do we serve and consume fried foods and Hot Cheetos and chocolate milk during the school day?