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?