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?

Tuesday, October 13, 2009


I didn't make it to school in time for lunch yesterday.  So, to make up for it I ate lunch AND dinner with my kiddies today. 

Lunch was a little overwhelming.  Even though I know the lunch ladies quite well,  communication was lacking and I never really understood what my options were.

Here's what the website listed for today's fare:

Cheese Sandwich
Pinto Beans
Steamed Spinach
Tossed Salad
Cinnamon Apples
Fresh Fruit Variety
Milk, Chocolate Skim
Milk, 1%
Milk, Skim
Ranch Dressing

What were my options in the cafeteria?

Well, there were definitely tamales, so I chose those (my very first tamale experience).  Next I chose mashed potatoes (with gravy) instead of white rice.  The sign on the lunch counter directed me to chose one meat, one bread and two vegetables, but I was offered a second bread - corn bread - and gladly accepted.  Next, there were a few small styrofoam bowls of plasticky looking salad, covered in plastic wrap, but I couldn't bring myself to opt for the salad since I knew I had a refrigerator drawer full of farmers market veggies waiting for me at home.  Instead I took a banana - the other fruit choices were green and red apples in plastic containers - and a carton of mixed berry juice that only contained 10 percent vitamin C.  Luckily it was 100 percent juice and no high fructose corn syrup.  The milks were covered up when I passed by, but I can only assume that that was because I had arrived a little early for the 8th grade lunch.  I was charged an even $3 and given a spork and napkin in a little plastic package with which to enjoy my lunch. 

And the result? The tamales were mushy and much too salty.  I only ate half of one.  The mashed potatoes were your standard instant mash: rather bland with a synthetically smooth texture.  I'm pretty sure that the gravy was vegetable-based, and it tasted just like the gravy that you buy in a packet at the supermarket.  The banana, was, well, a banana.  And the juice was unremarkable.  Who knew you could even buy juice these days that is not fortified with 100 percent DV of vitamin C?

I never saw steamed spinach or pinto beans, as advertised on the website, but I did notice a rack full of Doritos at the cash register.  It was unclear if they cost extra, or if they were included in the meal.  Hopefully tomorrow I will be a little bolder and ask what my healthier options are.  I felt confused and too embarrassed to ask for clarification about my choices, so it's easy to see what some of the obstacles are to making healthy choices for students who are surrounded by critical peers and in a rush to get back to their tables and socialize. 

For dinner, we served hot dogs with green beans, fruit cocktail and white hot dog buns.  For the first time, the meal was accompanied by condiments - two large boxes of ketchup and mustard packets.  As previously mentioned, the middle-schoolers must take all or nothing, so each of their plates contained a serving of each food.  I am not subject to this rule, however, so when I cut into line to grab myself a hot dog, I declined the almost brown, overcooked and over-salted canned green beans and the incredibly sweet fruit cocktail.  I used two packets of ketchup to enhance the taste of my rubbery dog and stale bun.

I certainly felt tired today, and lunch and dinner didn't help.  After arriving home this evening, I promptly stir-fried a large wok full of fresh vegetables - summer squash, mushrooms, onions, tomatoes, spinach, red peppers - and felt a little lighter afterward.

Tomorrow I can look forward to a chicken burger and oven roasted french fries for my noontime meal. Oh boy!

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Broccoli and hot dogs and fruit cocktail, oh my!

Okay, I know that I've posted twice this week already, but I just had an enlightening conversation with the Food Service Manager -  I'll call her Barbara - and I wanted to share it before the day takes over and all of this fascinating information slips away into oblivion. 

Barbara - who stays for an extra half hour everyday after school, to serve snacks to our middle schoolers - came to my office in between the sixth and seventh grade lunches this afternoon. We needed the standard I9 and W4 forms from her so that we can pay her for time, and as she dropped off her paperwork, we struck up a friendly conversation.  She told me how she is putting her daughter through medical school in Houston, and her son through business school here in Austin.  It is hard to steer a proud mother away from talking about her highly successful children, but I managed to sneak in a few questions about school lunch.

According to Barbara, who would know better than anyone else, 3 percent of the students at our school pay full price for lunch, which is set at a reasonable $2.25.  12 percent receive lunch at a reduced price (it was unclear what this price was), and a whopping 85 percent benefit from free lunches, five days a week. 

I told Barbara that I was interested in coming to the cafeteria one day to experience school lunch for myself.  She became very excited and, noticing the half-eaten pita sandwich on my desk and a tupperware overflowing with baby carrots, she assured me that I could find healthy options on any given day of the week.  Sometimes I feel like I walk around with an "I'm a health freak" sign on my forehead.  At least she didn't say, "you look like a vegetarian," which I've heard several times from students and co-workers since I arrived in Texas.  And you know what? I'm not a vegetarian! (anymore).

"Lunch is $3 for teachers, and there are chicken salads and sandwich wraps and fruits and vegetables every day," she informed me.  "The lunch menu is posted on the website for two weeks so you always know what you can get."  As soon as she left I checked out the website, which sure enough provided menus two weeks in advance and there were myriad fruits and vegetables listed for each day of the week, from garden salads, steamed broccoli and carrot and celery sticks, to pears, apples and fruit cocktail.

Students must chose between three and five items for their trays, two of which must be fruits and/or vegetables.

The menu for today is listed as follows:

Chicken Enchilada
Soft Beef Taco
Crispy Tacos
Turkey Hot Dog
Turkey Hot Dog w/ chili
Beef Taco Salad
Turkey Wrap
Tortilla Soup
Pinto Beans
Steamed Spinach
Garden Salad
Taco Fixings
Carrots; Celery Sticks
Broccoli and Carrots
Fresh Fruit Variety
Fruit Cocktail
Fruited Gelatin
Milk, 1%
Milk, Chocolate Skim
Milk, Strawberry 1%
Milk, Skim
Ranch Dressing
Hot Sauce

When I visited the cafeteria earlier in the week, I only noticed three milk choices, but four are listed on the website.  I instantly began to wonder if their are other disparities between what the district lists online and what is actually offered at lunch time.

The lunch menu website also states that "different menus [are developed] for each school level. Lunch menus are designed to meet one-third of  the Recommended Dietary Allowances for calories, protein, iron, calcium, Vitamin A and Vitamin C. Additionally the menus are analyzed to assure that the week does not exceed 30 percent of calories from fat or 10 percent of calories from saturated fat. Sodium, cholesterol and fiber are monitored as well. With our new feature you may view the nutrients for each food item on the menu.
Lunch consists of an entrée, two selections of fruit, vegetables or salad, bread which may be part of the entrée or separate and a choice of milk."

And as promised, below each of the daily menus is a link to a chart that lists each of the food items served that day, and the number of calories, the amount of protein, carbohydrates and fats (in g) and vitamin A and D contained in each food serving.  Unfortunately there is no Percent Daily Value listed, as on nutrition labels, so without some extra time and a calculator, it's not immediately clear how much of their RDA the students are consuming at lunch time.

So, yes, for the most part, a well-balanced (although not so fresh) meal is provided to students.  Barbara made a point of telling me that the students are unaware of how healthy some of the foods are.  For instance, the meat that was served with the tacos today looked like ground beef, but in fact it was ground turkey.  And hot dogs are made of turkey too.  "The cafeteria never serves red meat," Barbara explained with pride.  In my book, hot dogs - whatever they are made from - are not healthy.  But they do taste good once in a while. 

The real issue, Barbara lamented, is that while teachers can always find a well-balanced lunch in the cafeteria, students do not make choices that are as nutritionally wise.  Barbara told me that she encourages the children, particularly the girls, to take milk as one of their five food items.  She tells the girls how she wishes that she drank more milk as a teenager in order to avoid painful and costly health problems as an adult.  Many of the girls do take the milk, but once they are past the cash register, they dramatically throw the milk into the trash can, for Barbara to see.  Barbara seems quite distraught by this public and targeted display of rebellion, and was frustrated by her inability to get students to make healthy choices that will benefit them now and in the future.

I have to say that I was mildly impressed with the menu - pinto beans and steamed spinach! - given Barbara's limitations as far as sourcing locally and actually cooking foods from scratch.  For some great insight into the challenges that nutritionally-minded Food Service Manager's face, check out this article that appeared in the New York Times last week, School's Toughest Test: Cooking

I won't draw any grand conclusions here, but my conversation with Barbara and a little bit of detective work have left me with a whole styrofoam tray full of food for thought, and some great questions to pursue.  I have decided that in order to truly understand what is offered in the cafeteria each day and the choices that students must make, I need to stand in line and make those choices myself.

A challenge to myself: next week I will purchase school lunch each day and experience the chicken tenders, strawberry milk and fruit cocktails alongside my students (and then I'll write about it).

Before she left, Barbara told me that she eats breakfast and lunch at the school everyday.  And that by the time she gets home for dinner, she knows that she has consumed all of the fruits and vegetables and calcium that she needs, and therefore she can eat whatever she likes for dinner.  Somehow, I don't think that's the reaction that I am going to have.  I fear that I will need to stock up on extra fresh fruits and veggies so that when I get home from work I can eat a healthier dinner than usual, to compensate for the chicken tenders and hot dogs that I will inevitably sample at lunch time. 

Stay tuned ...

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Not that there's anything wrong with that

I did it!  I finally found the time to wait in the lunch line and buy myself 65 cents worth of chocolate milk.  I'm not a fan of chocolate milk to begin with, nor am I a skim milk drinker, but the half pint carton wasn't too bad.

Let's start with the good news: the milk sold at my middle school, and presumably throughout the school district, is local! ish. Oak Farms is based in Dallas, with plants in Houston, San Antonio and Waco.  As far as I can tell, all of the milk that is distributed by Oak Farms comes from cows that reside on farms somewhere in the state of Texas, and usually from within the region - in our case, central Texas - where the milk is actually being consumed.

I am already well acquainted with Oak Farms.  When we run out of the organic milk that we usually keep stocked in our fridge, I often pop down to the local convenience store to buy a small bottle to tide us over to the next grocery run.  Our corner store carries Oak Farm bottles with "Our Farmers' Pledge", stating that the milk comes from cows who are not treated with rbST.  Since the store owner refuses to carry organic milk (even though I've asked several times), I choose the Oak Farms brand and even feel good about drinking it.  But don't forget, *there is no significant difference between milk from cows treated with artificial growth hormones.  Every time I read that disclaimer on dairy products I feel like I'm in a Seinfeld episode: no rBST, not that there's anything wrong with that. (in the Seinfeld episode, Jerry uses this line to deny that he is gay, but at the same time prove that he is not anti-gay).

A few notes of rbST.  It stands for Recombinant Bovine Somatotropin, also known as Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone.  As Professor Merrigan - now Deputy Secretary Merrigan - taught us last year, if you are on the side of "Big Ag" then you call it rbST.  If you are on the sustainable food team, you say "growth hormones" or rBGH.  So, if you are trying to sound scientifically informed in front of a group of policy makers or Big Ag lobbyists, then go with rbST.

Bovine somatotropin is the naturally occurring protein hormone produced in the pituitary glands of all cattle.  RbST refers to the artificial reproduction of these protein hormones in labs using recombinant DNA technologies.  After years of research and increasing opposition to its use, RbST was approved for commercial use by the FDA in 1993.  Since then, it is estimated that about one-third of American dairy farmers use it on some portion (on average 45 percent) of their herd in order to increase milk production.

Although there is little scientific evidence to support the widespread belief that rbST has adverse health effects on humans, there are many reasons to seek out rbST-free milk.  The first is that use of rbST frequently causes mastitis - a painful infection of the cow's udder that causes inflammation and the production of abnormal milk - leading to an increased need for antibiotic use and more frequent contamination of milk with pus . Yum.  In addition, widespread use of rbST amongst factory farms further threatens the viability of small dairy farms who cannot compete with rbST-induced levels of milk production.  Lastly, rbST milk contains startlingly high levels of a natural growth factor, IGF-1, which is readily absorbed by human stomachs and has been linked to breast, colon and prostate cancers.  Canada, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and the European Union have all banned the use of rbST in commercial milk production.  If you're interested in rbST, more detailed information can found at rbST Facts and the Organic Consumers Association.

So, the good news is that the milk served at my middle school does not come from Wisconsin or Vermont or Mexico.  The bad news? Well, for starters, the Oak Farms milk that I buy for myself does not contain artificial growth hormones (everybody with me now, "not that there's anything wrong with that"); yet the half pint cartons provided to students contain no such guarantee.  Because, you know, it's not like children are more sensitive than adults to chemical additives in their foods, or anything.

The ingredients of the chocolate milk are as follows:  skim milk, high fructose corn syrup, cocoa (processed with alkali), salt, cornstarch, carrageenan, vitamin A palmate, vitamin D3.   Good news? I know what most of those ingredients are.  According to wikipedia, carrageenans are "a family of linear sulphated polysaccharides extracted from red seaweeds" that are used as thickening or stablising agents.  Bad news? High fructose corn syrup.

Good news: the chocolate milk contains no trans fats or saturated fats, 8 grams of protein, 10 percent of the daily value (DV) of vitamin A, 4 percent DV of vitamin C, 30 percent DV of Calcium, 2 percent DV of Iron, and 25 percent DV of vitamin D .  Bad news: the sodium content of the milk makes up 9 percent of our DV for sodium, and there are 29 grams of carbohydrates in a half pint of chocolate milk, 28 grams of which is high fructose corn syrup.

Up for grabs is the question of fat content.  The chocolate milk that I had the pleasure of sampling happens to be fat-free.  I personally prefer one or two percent milk, mostly because it tastes better, but also because a little bit of fat, especially the good kind, can go a long way in facilitating the absorption of essential nutrients.  Fats help the body to more efficiently use carotenoids, like lycopene and beta-carotene, which are found in those veggies that the students are consuming alongside their milk.  A girl can wish, right?  Fat is also important for maximizing the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins, like the A and D vitamins that are present in our carton of chocolate milk.  (Please please correct me if I'm wrong on all this, my nutrition science is a bit rusty.)

When I was purchasing my little carton of milk, I noticed that while the sugary chocolate and strawberry milks contained no fat, the "plain" milk was labeled as low-fat or "1 percent".  It seems obvious to me that if we are going to promote milk consumption in our schools, as a necessary source of protein and calcium, then we should not compromise its nutritional value by including high fructose corn syrup and removing all fats. Wouldn't it be better to simply offer "plain", low-fat milk?  I can already anticipate the opposition to this kind of policy, which certainly requires some attention: will students drink unflavored milk? Or will the absence of chocolate and strawberry flavors reduce student consumption of this dairy product that has become such a symbol of nutrition in American culture?

Based on my experience with the after-school snack program and Kids Cafe - where students must take "all or nothing", and usually end up eating what's on their plate - I would strongly advocate for the removal of fat-free, flavored milks from school lunches.  I predict that without the option of strawberry and chocolate milk, students will chose the put the "plain" milk on their trays, and once it's there, more often than not, they will drink it.

There is no doubt in my mind that we should provide students with rbST-free milk.  Just like with genetically modified foods (GMOs), the impact of rbST on humans, animals and our natural environment remains unknown; therefore, we must not gamble with our children's health and future.

What do we want for our children? Low-fat, "plain" milk from cows not treated with rbST (not that there's anything wrong with that).

When do we want it? Now.

Sunday, October 4, 2009


This was one of those weeks when you are forced to eat your lunch while walking to another meeting and when you spend most of the day having to go to the bathroom, but can never quite find the time for relief.  On Tuesday I had a few extra minutes during the seventh grade lunch to steal down to the cafeteria and buy myself some milk.  I'd been wanting to do this for a few weeks, just to get the experience of waiting in line, to see what kids chose for lunch, and to develop a fresh opinion of the milk that appears on millions of styrofoam trays around the country each day. 

I grabbed two quarters from my wallet, remembering that milk cost 35 cents when I was in school and assuming that 50 cents would cover the cost of inflation.  I've never been a fan of chocolate milk, but once I reached the counter, I chose chocolate over the plain and strawberry milks because I thought I could tolerate drinking it, and wanted to know what the ingredients were.  High fructose corn syrup?

"65 cents please m'am," Maria the cafeteria worker told me.  My face burned with embarrassment as I put the milk back and mumbled something about being right back.  By the time I got back to the cafeteria, an extra quarter in hand, the black gates were already pulled across the lunch line entrance and the kids were no where in sight.  A few lunch ladies sat off to the side eating their own lunches, but I didn't want to bother them, so I trudged back to my office to eat the cheese and tomato pita sandwich and nectarine that I had brought with me for lunch that day. 

I did not find another opportunity to buy milk this week, and obviously I did not find the time to research milk.  So y'all will have to stay tuned on the milk issue.  Again.

In other news this week ...

We had a district-wide training on community building for all after-school staff.  For the closing activity, we were asked to read quotations placed around the room and chose the one that we identified with the most.  The one that instantly jumped out at me was about integrity, using a tree as a metaphor.  Something about standing strong like a tree trunk, even when your leaves are rustled ...  Obviously, I liked the reference to trees and nature, and after having struggled with so much opposition to one of my own core beliefs about healthy eating, the quote rang true.  What the facilitator didn't tell us is that we would then have to go around the room and share with dozens of participants- mostly strangers - why we chose the quote. 

Staff members began sharing very touching stories about their roles as community leaders and role models for under-served youth, referencing their own personal struggles and some even teared up.  All I could think about was my conflict with Joe the previous week and I was wholly unable to think of something meaningful that did not relate to food.  My heart beat faster and faster and I know that my cheeks were glowing pink when all of a sudden it was my turn.  Having formed nothing else to say, I blurted out something about needing to stay true to my convictions about healthy eating even when no one agreed with me, and not giving the kids Hot Cheetos even though it's the easiest choice.  I really doubted that anyone understood what I was talking about.

When I got back to the office after the training, there was an email waiting for me.  It had been sent by the director of after school programming for the entire district, to all after school staff.  The email contained the district's public school policy concerning food - which was actually quite good, basically no candy or junk food can be given to students during the school day, and the number of permitted pizza parties was restricted - with a direction to adhere to this policy as closely as possible after school.  Could this have been a coincidence? I like to think that my anxiety and blubbering at the training was not in vain ... But in any case, I now have the administration behind me! I did not hesitate to write back and thank the director, and offer my services in conducting a training for staff on this topic. 

Other events of the week were not quite so momentous, but probably more rewarding.  As part of the Sustainable Food Center class "Farm to Fork" - the sister class to Food Food Food! - we planted our school garden with the help of three very eager middle schoolers.  Onions, strawberries, oregano, turnips.  The kids were grinning the whole time and since most of what we put in the ground were transplants, the garden is already green and thriving! 

Yesterday I took five of my Food Food Food! students to the downtown farmers market.  Three of them were so excited that they arrived an hour before we were supposed to leave.  I thought I would get to school early so I could drink my coffee and collect all the materials, without having to worry about the kids.  Alas, they were already there when I pulled up in the twelve-seater van, grinning, jumping up and down and shouting "Miss Abby, is that your car?"

Two of the girls brought money with them, unbeknownst to me, and once at the farmers market they quickly located all of the locally-produced sweets they could find.  Each time I bumped into them they were stuffing their pretty little faces with brownies and cookies and lemonade.  I was exasperated at first.  But once they completed the scavenger hunt I had given them, and they had spoken with several farmers and identified vegetables they had never seen before, I felt a bit better.  One of my students worked very diligently on his scavenger hunt and wrote several answers for each question.   

Find a farmer who sells meat and ask him or her what animal the meat comes from, and which body parts s/he is selling.  Cow! he wrote, and then proceeded to list all of the cow's body parts, including stomichFind a vegetable that you have never seen before and ask the farmer what it is.  Egg plant.  Turnup greens.  Green tumates.

I told the children that they had $20 to buy lunch for the whole group, and after they figured out that that was $4 each, I suggested that they pool the money together to buy food for a picnic.  Bread, cheese, tomatoes.  Unfortunately one student spotted a pizza stand, where a local pizza restaurant was selling fresh slices for $3.75 a pop.  Three students elected to buy pizza and I had to stick to my word that they could decide on their own how to spend the money.  The other two students were enamored with the idea of a picnic - "sandwiches like my grandmother makes!" one exclaimed - and so I helped them bargain with a few vendors to get all of the goods they needed for a wholesome picnic for under $8: smoked mozzarella cheese, whole wheat baguettes and heirloom tomatoes.  Everyone was pleased with their lunch, and the makeshift picnic made up for my dissatisfaction over the brownies and cookies.  Next week I will definitely include a lesson on portions and sugar in our Food Food Food! class.

And that's my week in a locally grown, organic Texan nutshell.  

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Be careful what you wish for

For the last two weeks, I've had in the back of my mind that I would blog about milk.  Chocolate, strawberry, skim, whole.  You name it, I'm pretty sure that I have something to say about it.  More importantly, I want an excuse to do a little personal research about milk choices and consumption in school lunch and snack programs.

Alas, the Hot Cheetos saga continues and how can I not write about it? Personal conflict and Hot Cheetos are so much juicier than milk.

Besides one little quip from Joe on Friday, the food issue had been dormant since I last blogged.  And it was a minor quip.  I caught Joe giving Hot Cheetos to some of the girls in his community service club, so he put up his hands in mock apology, "we ran out of bean sprouts!"

Hrumph.  I managed a laugh and did not think about it again for the whole weekend.  On Monday I arrived at work ready to tackle the homework component of our after school program that I had been assigned to head up.  Goal: to get students to stay at school longer than they have to, to do homework in a classroom that they probably already sat in for an hour that day.  And with tutors who may or may not know how to productively help them with their homework.  Despite this daunting task, I quickly connected with teachers, parents and students alike and rounded up a motley crew to attend our Homework Hour this afternoon.  Joe was assigned to monitor the class, and since I had noticed him giving Hot Cheetos to student who asked for homework help last week, I decided to be proactive.

I approached Joe when we were alone in the office, and casually mentioned that although he gives Hot Cheetos and Snickers to his students in his community service club, would he mind if we refrained from using junk food as a reward for showing up to Homework Hour.  Joe was instantly defensive and began attacking my nose ring (yes, my nose ring), insisting that I am not a good role model because I have a piercing in my face and so how can I pretend to want to model healthy eating?  The conversation - well, argument at this point - increasingly revolved around the irrelevant nose ring and I was not able to steer it back to the topic at hand: food.

I was uncharacteristically angered by our conversation, partly because Joe made it personal and refused to actually discuss whether or not we should use junk food as a homework incentive.  Mostly I was angry because I had assumed that my suggestion about a junk-food-free Homework Hour would be welcomed and not given a second thought.  Instead, I was reminded about the deep and persistent nature of American junk food culture.

I am tempted to outline my argument against Joe, so that you can all pat me on the back and tell me how well I handled the situation and how right I am.  But I think I would rather reflect (as I love to do).  After he let me vent this evening over dinner, Kris wisely asked "so what lessons can be learned from this?"  Oh boy, let the lessons roll. 

Lesson 1: Healthy conflict is a necessary part of progress.

After I cooled down and spoke with my supervisor about my argument with Joe, the three of us sat down to smooth things over.  My boss and Joe acted as though I had suggested something incredibly radical, and the focus of the conversation was that we should reach a compromise between my extreme, veggie-loving stance, and Joe's desire for conformity and consistency with past practices. This was even more infuriating.  Radical? I'll show them radical.  You want to serve them a moderately healthy snack at 3:30, followed by Hot Cheetos and Snickers at 4:30, and an occasionally well-balanced dinner at 5:30? Without any physical activity in the middle? (The kids who play in our soccer club are never offered junk food as an incentive to get them onto the field).

My radical response would have gone something like this: tomato juice in biodegradable cups, with carrot sticks - fresh from the farmers market - and hummus made with organic garbanzo beans in our cooking class.  Dinner - comprised of no less than 3 servings of fresh fruits and vegetables; whole grains and organic meat - to be served at 6, after students participate in some sort of physical activity (preferably yoga).  No snacks should be given during classes because the student JUST ATE.

Instead, a meager "how about we don't give the kids junk food during Homework Hour?" was treated as if I'd just suggested banning High Fructose Corn Syrup from the state of Texas.  Radical?  Hrumph.  After some rather awkward and frustrating discussion, my supervisor and Joe announced that they both fully supported creating an after school policy to encourage healthy snacks and ban junk food.  "Let's make a list of foods you want us to pick up, and we can serve smoothies and apples and carrots," they suggested, nodding enthusiastically.  I couldn't help but feel that I was being patronized, but they were completely serious.

This was not what I had in mind.  I simply didn't want to live with Hot Cheetos on my conscience.  But revamping an entire food system? I'm still trying to get comfortable in my new job and build relationships and adjust to a new city and ... and ... and ...  It's just so much more comfortable to think and write about these things, but to actually take action with a comprehensive strategy and the support of your co-workers ...

Lesson 2: Be careful what you wish for.

Lesson 3: In order to effect change, all stakeholders must feel like they have ownership of the change.

It didn't take long to realize that Joe wasn't opposed to banning junk food at all.  After things were resolved, he commented to me, "I wasn't going to give them Hot Cheetos today anyway."  Joe's defensive attitude was obviously far more about not wanting some overachieving 26 year old from Boston to come along and demand change, than it was about junk food, or nose piercings for that matter.  By accepting my suggestion, Joe would have been admitting that the system he has been working in for dozens of years is broken, and that he is partly responsible.  By proposing a far larger change to the after school food culture than I had even implied, Joe was taking charge and owning that change.  He clearly wants to be part of the solution, not the problem.

This is a fantastic lesson that I have learned before, but need to be reminded of from time to time.  Change cannot involve pride, arrogance or a desire for control.  It must be wholly inclusive, humble and adaptable.  One's role as an organizer and vector for change is to be an invisible hand that inspires and helps others to form their own ideas and put them into action.  I will remember this as I approach other co-workers, food service workers and school administrators.  Allow the idea to be theirs, and assist them in its implementation.

Lesson (well, reminder) 4: I moved to Austin for a reason.  The same reason that I spent last summer in Arkansas.  To learn how to effect change in climates that are uncomfortable and unfamiliar (and I'm not just talking about the weather).  By gaining a greater understanding of political, educational and nutritional perspectives in a state that is more diverse and arguably less progressive than Massachusetts, I am playing a role in the expansion and improvement of a movement that I care deeply about.  Now obviously Austin is a liberal bubble unto itself, but it's still no Cambridge, or Boston for that matter.  I am accustomed to having friends and co-workers who raise chickens in their backyard, compost in their sleep, and who wax lyrical about kale.  And although hippies and farmers markets abound in Austin, the institutions and communities here are, more often than not, heavily influenced by conservative Texas laws and traditions.  My experience with Joe reminds me that I purposefully moved out of my element, and out of my element I have arrived.

Highlight of the day: I taught a Food Miles lesson during my Food Food Food class, and watched students fight over fake produce from fake farmers market, and cry out in horror when they had to place apples from Chile in to their fake shopping baskets because that's all that was left. 

Highlight of the week: a willingness to tackle a worthwhile conflict head-on spurred what may prove to be the very comprehensive change that I've been wishing for.  Stay tuned ...

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

What would you do for a Snickers Bar?

When is it okay to use food as an incentive?

I worked for a year and a half at a residential program for teenage girls in Arlington, Massachusetts, where the rule was simply: you cannot use food as an incentive.  The program was heavily structured around incentives for positive behaviors, so this was no easy task.  You had to get creative, each staff was allotted a meager $5 to do something fun with each teen who accomplished set goals over a given period of time.  Now let's be real, the easiest thing to do with $5, especially when you are overworked and underpaid, is to drive to McDonalds or walk down the street to Brighams and get a Sundae.  Sigh.  The food rule was not strictly upheld, but edible incentives were certainly discouraged and many staff thought up wonderful ideas, including walks around the neighborhood, movie rentals, trips to the beach, the latest issue of a popular magazine, or sharing the cost of a manicure or a book, to reward good behavior.

The justification for this rule went something like this: if you use food as a reward or bribe, then children learn to associate food as a treat or something to work for, rather than something that we consume to sustain our bodies and minds.  Food should be given to children in the form of healthy, well-balanced meals and snacks that are based on nothing else but the fact that we are hungry.  If children are taught to associate sugary, fatty foods like ice cream and french fries with that warm fuzzy feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment, then they will seek out those foods to conjure up that same feeling, with or without any accomplishments to accompany the treat.

I have tried diligently - both in my work with residential kids and now with public school children - not to take the easy way out by incentivising food.  I have tried to be creative and use praise and quality time with yours truly as a reward for good behavior.  I have even tried to remove food as an incentive in my own life, by not taking myself out for an ice cream after finishing a paper or ordering a pizza at the end of a particularly grueling day at work.  But it's hard!  Really really hard.  Even those of us who have mostly healthy eating habits and who had positive role models as children and attentive parents who employed creative ways to reward good behavior, even we have a relationship with food that goes beyond basic sustenance.  For most Americans, food equals pleasure, even if the feeling is fleeting. 

I've given this topic a lot of thought this week, and it's become a source of contention with some of my co-workers.  Yesterday I made a creamy pesto dip with my Food Food Food! class, using basil plants that I picked from my garden that morning (notice the pesto theme).  Every adult that I informed of my lesson plan earlier in the day was certain that the kids wouldn't take to this sophisticated food.  But lo and behold, come class time, my students were wholly engaged in every step of the dip preparation, and all but one finished their plate.  A few had seconds.  I mean, come on, even 12 year olds appreciate a little garlic and salt, even when it doesn't come in a package that goes pop when you open it.

The fact that our class makes snacks or meals and then eats them is an incentive in and of itself.  The kids show up in large numbers to my classes, because they know they will get to eat.  Only a few are truly interested in the cooking process and ask to bring a copy of the recipe home with them, or ask me questions about cooking after class.  Am I using food to inflate my class numbers? Is it wrong to create incentives with all food, or just junk food? My initial reaction is NO.  My class is fun and educational and if it opens even just a few middle schoolers' minds to new cuisines, that are certainly not junk, then it must be a positive part of their development.

The little person sitting on my other shoulder quickly shouts, no wait!  You're wrong.  It's the same as using junk food as a reward. An image floods into my head: my extremely obese seventh grader, stuffing his face with as many chips and pesto dip as I would permit (18 chips, or 2 servings in this case, since we also used the class to learn about serving sizes).  And then after class, this same student, helping to serve dinner so that he could sneak food, and then volunteering to clean up so that he could dig into the leftovers when staff turned their backs.  Not all of the staff are as vigilant as I am, and most of them allow him to eat as much as he wants, as long as everyone else has had their fill.

What kind of influence does my class have on this student's ability to make good choices about food? Should I allow him to participate in my class, or to help with dinner?  How do I reach a child who so obviously relies on food as a coping mechanism to conjure up those warm fuzzy feelings?  What form do meals take in this child's home, and are his parents obese as well? I think my head might explode.

Despite my unwavering ability to play devil's advocate, I know that my Food Food Food! class is a great addition to the after-school program.  I just can't help but wonder where to draw the line with food, and what adverse impacts my class might be having, despite my good intentions.

One of my co-workers - I'll call him Joe - waltzed into the office this morning with two large plastic Walmart bags filled with Hot Cheetos.  I immediately gave him a hard time about using junk food to attract kids to his community service class, half in jest, but also hoping to begin a dialogue about what kinds of messages we are sending our students about food.  Note: this man has only known me for a month, has no idea about my nutrition background or passion for all things food related, except that I bring a well-balanced lunch to work with me each day and that I teach a cooking and gardening class.

Joe responded as if he had never considered the possibility that junk food might be bad for you.  After staring blankly at me for a few seconds he returned to his work with a half-hearted laugh, assuming - I think - that I was joking.

"No really," I said, "can't we find something besides junk food to encourage involvement in community service projects?"

"You've never eaten junk food?" Joe sneered.  This was especially disconcerting since Joe is a very kind, older man, who is the epitome of a Southern Gentleman.  He brings me oranges and baby carrots sometimes, because he noticed that I like to eat fruits and vegetables.  I didn't think that he even knew how to sneer.

All of a sudden I realized that I wasn't in Cambridge anymore.  And when I tried to broach the subject with a different co-worker, he was equally as surprised and unwilling to acknowledge any responsibility on our part to provide healthy foods to our students.  I didn't dare mention my thoughts on using food as a reward.  The after-school program that I work for provides an entire pizza to each student who consistently volunteers to serve dinner and clean up afterward.  That's one large pizza per child for every 10 days that they help out, for a total of 15 minutes each day.

After testing the waters and realizing what I was up against - even within my own little office of do-gooders who genuinely want to be positive role models for these children - I decided to retreat and re-strategize.  I would come up with some sort of plan to gradually change the food culture within our after-school program.  As shocked as I was by the reactions of my co-workers and their complete ignorance concerning the promotion of healthy foods to students,  I felt slightly relieved.  I now have a tangible challenge involving just a few people, who I conveniently see everyday.  I can work to change the food culture within our after-school program, before even considering how one might begin to tackle the snack and lunch policies of this massive urban school district, which are inextricably linked to national food and farm legislation.

At the end of programming today, I was standing with a few lingering students while they passed my cell phone around to call home and ask for a ride.  One of the eighth graders, of whom I am particularly fond, pulled out a very large Snickers Bar from his pocket.  "Look what Joe gave me today," he boasted.  I instantly thought to myself, "well what's the difference between Hot Cheetos and a Snickers Bar. Oh well."  This same eighth grader put his hand back into his pocket and pulled out an empty packet of Hot Cheetos, still grinning and, I suddenly noticed, bearing some very dirty, orange fingers.  I could hardly believe it.  It was almost as if Joe had put him up to it.  I was speechless, and stormed over to Joe, "Snickers AND Hot Cheetos!" I exclaimed.  He looked at my with that same blank expression, shrugged and walked away.

We didn't speak for the rest of the evening.


I would really like to hear anyone and everyone's thoughts on this topic.  I know that most garden-based education programs include healthy snacks - particularly ones that incorporate veggies that the children grow themselves - as a regular part of their curricula.  I left work today feeling that maybe I am the only person who struggles with the idea of food as an incentive.  And I am having a hard time deciding how and where to draw the line.

Is it okay to give pretzels to students, to entice them to participate in an activity, or reward them for a project well done? What about apples? Canned pineapples? Orange Juice? Chocolate covered peanuts? Sugar cookies? Doritos? Diet Coke? Regular Coke? Pizza?

I am going to finish my glass of wine (as a reward for a tiring day and a long post?) and wait for your wise responses.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Apple Seeds

Regrettably, I didn't get to attend a Slow Food USA Eat-In on Labor Day, since I was too busy sunning myself on the Gulf Coast.  I did, however, sign their online petition, stating that "I believe that change can’t wait: It's time to provide America's children with REAL FOOD at school."  This petition is Slow Food USA's kick-off to a lobbying initiative to include provisions for healthier, locally sourced school lunches in the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act this fall.

Despite my absence at the Austin Eat-In at Rain Lily Farm - or perhaps this was in spite of absence, intended to inspire guilt  - I received an email on Tuesday telling me about all the delicious foods that were consumed at Eat-Ins across the country: carmelized-onion and goat cheese quiche, lemon and herb-crusted chicken with verjuice, lavender-poached fruit, foie gras and fig compote, and BLTs with pesto mayonnaise and thickly-sliced, locally raised bacon.

At our own little beach Eat-In, we chowed down on organic sausages and fresh corn, hot off the grill (with a fine layer of local sand for some extra crunch).  Whole wheat buns, ketchup and mustard, red and yellow peppers, and Spanish rice also made an appearance.

I have no idea what my students ate that day, but I can tell you that it wasn't foie gras or BLTs with pesto mayonnaise, or even organic sausage.  If I had to guess, I'd say that the only foods (if you can call them foods) that our diets had in common were ketchup and mustard.  As for Tuesday, I KNOW that the students' diet consisted mainly of fried foods, packaged foods and white foods.  Anything with color was overcooked and came from a can.  After-school snack that day was the cheese sticks and crackers combo, with a couple of 6 oz cartons of juice to wash it down (the cartons contain 100 percent juice - "mixed juice" - but only 13 percent Vitamin C) .

Dinner left much to be desired (for me, anyway) and instead of the fresh looking spaghetti that arrived last week, the middle schoolers were delighted by  prepackaged hot-pocket pizzas.  These were accompanied by canned pineapples that received a mixed review, and very soggy looking green beans, most of which ended up in the big black trash bags. Who can blame the kids for not eating their greens, when they more closely resemble browns?  I was thoroughly disappointed that the main course came in a package.  As a good friend of mine tells her elementary school students in Somerville, MA, "if it exhales when you open it, it's probably not that good for you."

While I have little immediate control over what is served to my students on a daily basis - unless I win the lottery and stop by a farm stand each day on my way to work to pick up fresh snacks for 200 - I understand that I am well poised to influence the way that they think about food, to sow the seed for more healthy food choices in the future.

In my Food Food Food! class on Tuesday I used apples as a medium for discussing the distribution of natural resources and the relative scarcity of arable farmland around the world (apple activity courtesy of the National Science Teacher's Association).  After dissecting the apple into as many halves and quarters and eighths as possible (and trying to teach fractions along the way) there were apple seeds scattered everywhere, and I used this teachable moment to discuss plant parts and the life cycle of plants.  My students were full of questions about where different foods come from and we had a lively discussion about what vegetables look like before they are harvested.  Everyone happily munched on the extra apples that I brought with me to the class, and the kids were extremely excited when I took them out to the three raised beds behind our school and we made a list of vegetables and herbs to be planted this fall.

I know that despite their enthusiasm for apples and our future garden, the students in my Food Food Food class ate hot-pockets for dinner without a second thought, and they probably went home afterwards and munched on a bag of Doritos.  But I didn't go home swamped in despair.  During class, one of my sixth graders asked if we could plant the apple seeds in our garden.  I explained that apple trees take many years to grow and mature enough to produce fruit, and that even if we planted our apple seeds that day, the plants would not bear apples until my middle schoolers had gone away to college.  Talking to children about food and farming is like planting that apple seed.  It's not like growing tomatoes where you get results within a few months.  You have to nurture the apple tree. And if you are patient and diligent you can be certain that years later your hard work will bear fruit.

I don't expect my students to go home and demand carmelized-onion and goat cheese quiche from their parents, or even to start bringing wholesome brown bag lunches from home.  I will be patient and relish in the knowledge that my passion for growing food and eating well-balanced meals - and taking the time to talk to students about it - serves as a model for children who may not have been exposed to this kind of enthusiasm for healthy, locally-produced food before.  I strongly believe that change is the result of a two-pronged approach: national and global policy changes - like the ones proposed by Slow Food USA - that alter the way we grow food and what we serve to our children during the school day, and the grass-roots approach, where education leads to healthy choices made by individuals, families and communities.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Chood: Church and Food

After a day off for family night, after-school programming was back in action yesterday.  And even though all I could think about all day long was the basil that I was going to harvest from my container garden to make pesto that evening, I tried very  hard to focus on the food that was being eaten at school.  Need I mention that there was no fresh pesto to be found?

I popped my head into the cafeteria at lunch time and saw rows of white styrofoam trays, laden with chicken patty sandwiches or chicken tenders, and french fries.  And many of the students were also eating bags of Doritos.  I couldn't find a single student with a brown bag lunch, and the absence of milk, fruits and vegetables on the trays was conspicuous.

Fast forward to 4:30.  Maria - a Mexican-American special education student, name changed - and I played a few rounds of Guess Who, and then she announced that she was leaving.  "But don't you want to stay for dinner?" I asked. The Food Bank had already dropped off several steaming trays, to be served at 5pm.  "Nah, my mom picked me up to go to church after school, and then she dropped me back here so I could play for a while."  I swallowed and smiled, trying to be open minded and racking my brain to think of churches or youth groups that meet for a mere 20 minutes on Wednesday afternoons.

"So they give you food at church?" I finally asked.  She grinned and nodded.  I couldn't figure out what to make of this, except that it's probably a good thing that a church is providing food to families during the week.  Maria absentmindedly wandered away, but a few minutes later she came sprinting back to me with a big smile on her face.  "You thought I meant church! I mean Church's!"  This probably isn't very revealing for most of you, but since I have a southern boyfriend and have now lived in Texas for a whopping two months, I knew exactly what she meant.  Insert stick figure with short blond hair and a light bulb overhead.  Church's Chicken is a popular fast food chain around here.  Maria's mom had picked her up from school to get fast food!  This makes so much more sense.  Although I couldn't help but note that a brief afterschool rendezvous at church would no doubt be more nutritious for body and soul than fried chicken from a drive thru. 

I convinced Maria to stick around until the program ended.  I didn't want her wandering around the neighborhood alone and she clearly did not know how to get home on her own.  The kids grew increasingly hungry and impatient and Guess Who and ping-pong couldn't hold their attention any longer.  So with the assistance of a few hungry, but helpful 7th graders, we doled out plates of cheesey spaghetti, green beans, canned fruit and bread to a roomful of ravenous middle schoolers.  (There was no snack that day, the snack program doesn't start until next week).  It turns out that the all-or-nothing rules apply to dinner as well, so each student had to take a full plate, or go without  And all of a sudden this rules makes sense to me.  Insert light bulb number two.  Because even though kids tried every trick in the book - I'm allergic to greenbeans, I don't eat bread, the fruit is too mushy - they all sat down with a full, nutritionally well-balanced plate.  And when they stood up, the plates were empty, without exception.  A few even came back for extra servings of fruit and green beans (and spaghetti of course).  We served seconds and thirds to some very appreciative preteens until all that was left was a few spoonfuls of greenbeans.  Hurrah for no food waste.  And two hurrahs for satiated kids with bellies full of fruits and vegetables.

So what would I change? Well, whole wheat bread and pasta, and fresh fruits and veggies would be ideal.  But given the constraints of serving food to over a thousand schoolchildren and transporting it to a dozen sites (all at no cost to the kids), I'd say that this is a great start, and a huge improvement over what I witnessed earlier in the cafeteria.  If the Capital Area Food Bank can provide nutritious meals, then there's no excuse for the school cafeteria.  And maybe the all-or-nothing rule should be a part of the School Lunch Program too, and not just apply to snacks.  Fruits, veggies and milk were all offered at lunch (the nutritional content of school lunches are strictly regulated), but for whatever reason the kids didn't take them.  My experience with afterschool dinners indicates that if the kids were forced to take all or nothing, then maybe they would eat the nutritious parts of their lunch, perhaps because they are bored, or still hungry or are curious about how those bright orange carrot sticks taste. 

I noticed that Maria finished off her dinner plate, and came back for seconds of bread.  Maybe she was hungry after all, or maybe her body craved some greens - and yellows and reds - after her fried and nutritionally-lacking afterschool Church's snack.  I wonder if she will still steal away to the drive thru when we provide free snacks, or if that is a regular part of her routine.  A way to spend time with her mom and escape from school for a while.

As I ate my whole wheat pasta with fresh pesto and tomatoes last night, I wondered about Maria and the different reasons that we eat what we eat.  Certainly what we are served - whether it is by school cafeteria workers, afterschool staff, or our families - greatly influences the types of food that we consume.  I know that whenever I have put a bowl of fresh fruit in front of kids whose diet mainly consists of soda, chips and fried foods, they devour the fruit the same way they would eat from a bowl of candy.  But expectations and modeling are also clearly important.  By setting standards around what kinds of foods kids must take - regardless of whether they clear their plates or not - we are modeling a well-balanced meal and demonstrating that eating fruits and vegetables and drinking milk is important.

Teachers do not simply place homework on the front table and tell their students that they can take all or part of it, if they want to.  Students must take all of their homework, and there are consequences if they do not complete it.  Obviously, we should not dole out consequences for students who do not eat their fruits and vegetables, but we can encourage healthy eating habits by requiring that greens make an appearance on their plates.  If nothing else, kids will take a good long look at the colorful fruits and veggies, and carton of milk, and acknowledge their consistent presence next to the white hamburger buns, breaded chicken patties and golden french fries.

Re: my last post.  I eat my words, all of them.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

After-school Snack Program

On Thursday I was required by my school district to attend a "snack training".  The training had two purposes: the first was to sign up to receive after-school snacks at no charge to the students participating in our after-school program.  The second was to learn about the federal regulations guiding this program (which is part of the National School Lunch Program) so that we don't inadvertently do anything to jeopardize our snack funding while administering the snacks.

Wow, I thought I knew all about the School Lunch Program, but I didn't know it included snacks!   The students in our after-school program get free snacks at 3:30, as long as they participate in our activities.  Fantastic!  It turns out that each snack consists of two parts (i.e. cheese and crackers) to ensure a well-balanced refreshment.  Even better.

But wait, if the students refuse to take both parts then they can't have a snack at all.  All or nothing folks.  And if you take both parts of the snack, you have to eat them both, or throw the leftovers away.  Even if the packaging is in tact.  No sharing.  And definitely no saving.  The biggest no-no of the After-school Snack Program is bringing your snack off campus, or home to share with your hungry siblings.  Now, wait a minute, isn't this program designed to provide nutritious food to students who might not have access to snacks at home? What if they're not hungry at 3:30 because they had school lunch at 1?  Well, the food service providers who ran the snack training tried mightily to explain that this is a food safety regulation to prevent cross-contamination (read: fear of H1N1) and reduce the school's liability.  I suppose this makes sense.  And I'm not trying to rail against the Feds because obviously it's no easy task to develop national food regulations for school programs.  It just seems a bit rigid, and what happens to the snacks that don't get eaten? There definitely aren't snack seconds.  Just a very large trash can in the middle of the room. 

I am not writing to prematurely complain about a program designed to increase food access in impoverished communities (well, maybe a little), but rather to set the stage for what I'm sure will be a deluge of posts to come on after-school snacks.  Because although I pop my head into the cafeteria at lunch time to say hello to my students, I will have a lot less contact with the lunch program.  As the proud administer of the after-school snack program at my middle school, I'm sure that I will have plenty to say on the subject of snacks.  What I'm most interested in, besides rules about distribution, is the quality and nutritional content of the snacks.  Because if they are anything like the lunches, then we are in trouble. 

On a positive note, our after-school program is lucky enough to participate in Kids Cafe.  Thanks to the generosity of the Capital Area Food Bank, students receive free meals three days a week after participating in after-school programming.  Their siblings and parents and friends can come too! The only caveat is that the children in our program eat first.  Sounds incredibly reasonable.  Teachers who stay late, and program staff can also help themselves, so that leftovers do not go to waste.  I am obviously excited about this program, and cannot wait to write about it next week.  Stay tuned ...