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  Becomes lethargic and withdrawn before meal times - more than your average low blood sugar episode - but perks right up the instant she eats.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?