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 ...


  1. Multitude of favorite lessons from this post. I will choose only one.

    "Healthy conflict is a necessary part of the progress."

    True Dat.

  2. abby, I really enjoy reading this. I am heavily anticipating the next part of the joe story...


  3. Change happens one small step at a time. Looking forward to hearing more about milk......