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.