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 Becomes lethargic and withdrawn before meal times - more than your average low blood sugar episode - but perks right up the instant she eats.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