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.