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.

1 comment:

  1. What an insightful post! So many things spring to mind... Hopefully, I'll have time to respond again in a few days, but I wanted to say for now that these are definitely issues I think about all the time. However, given the premise of your Food Food Food! class, I don't believe that you are actually incentivizing with food.

    You are providing an opportunity for engagement, to build precisely the types of relationships with food that you (and I) see as essential to developing healthy eating habits - not simply handing over an otherwise meaningless treat as a reward. I've mentioned this to you before, though offline, the idea of establishing a points-based system of rewards that provides a way for students to earn their way toward some type of special activity and thus incent positive behavior and participation. Field trips work great for this purpose and can easily involve active learning along with the consumption of healthy foods. What message does that send? That eating is a practice of sharing and learning - now that's an incentive I can get behind!