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  Becomes lethargic and withdrawn before meal times - more than your average low blood sugar episode - but perks right up the instant she eats.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


  1. Interesting subject and great commentary! My experience in Austin was with much younger kids, and it was clear to me that food preferences and behavior were already being set in kindergarten. The mexican, mexican-american or central american kids in my classes had already experienced lots of food traditions at 5 or 6 years old -- festivals with particular foods & preparations, gardens, and among some, really strong family bonding around traditional foods. It was a noticeable cultural feature that was definitely not as evident among the african american families.

  2. Great blog! would those obese students be willing to work on their food intake? keeping a food log might be helpful. Also talking about different feelings with them - mad, sad, lonely etc and help them identify if they are eating to numb those feelings. A feelings diary might be another step.
    Body awareness - recognising physical hunger and fullness cues.
    Hey their might be a whole couse on this or a group.......

  3. Abby, this is for me, a really interesting blog with some interesting questions. Your taking the kids out for a meal reminds of an episode of The Wire, where an African American ex-policeman, turned teacher, takes some of his really difficult kids out to a restaurant for the first time in their live. As far as I know, the Mexican/Latino diet is heavily based on complex carbohydrates, chillies, beans and all the stuff I'm sure you know about. My inference is that their culture is more compact, and they probably have a strong sense of their own identity. I suspect that although there's clearly a racial identity amongst African Americans, and to a degree a cultural and spiritual one, their identity is more diffuse, and their history in the US more troubled. While these cultural dimensions must surely influence eating habits, I suspect the emotional ones and speaking about them are also key. In my experience, Latin American and Hispanic cultures are very verbal ones, and they are used to expressing feelings in words. I'm not so sure about African Americans, and obviously I'm not talking about the likes of Oprah. Well, some thoughts, and enjoy Thanksgiving.

  4. Hey Ab, thanks for another interesting post. It's so nice to read something non-clinical but important to healthcare in a larger sense. In regards to obesity rates, the CDC actually has a boatload of statistics for the US, some divided by race and ethnicity. Non-Hispanic blacks have the highest rate of obesity, Hispanics are 2nd, and non-Hispanic whites are 3rd. From my observations in the hospital and Worcester community, obesity (and diabetes and all that follows) is particularly a problem among middle-aged and older Hispanic women. Sometimes having a strong cultural association with food is actually deleterious to the individual, as any dietitian who works with Hispanic diabetic patients will tell you. Limiting carbohydrates is not an option. And exercise is definitely not a cultural norm, at least not for women of a certain age. However, despite this, I think the value placed on food and family in Hispanic cultures is hugely valuable. Perhaps the solution to the obesity epidemic in this population lies on the other side of the calorie equation - encouraging young Hispanic girls as well as boys to participate in sports (and keep participating as they grow), making neighborhoods safer for walking, etc etc.

    Annnnyhoo, those are my thoughts for the evening. And now that I've made myself hungry thinking of rice and beans, I'm off to the local Mexican restaurant with Hector. Hope all is well and I'll see you at Xmas!