Sunday, December 6, 2009

Joe is Back

Well, folks, Joe is back.  And I just realized that I never even told you that he was gone.  About a week after the nose ring incident (see post from Sept. 22) - and many hours spent wishing that he would disappear from my life - Joe suddenly stopped showing up for work and was granted sick leave indefinitely.  I was able to hire a new staff member to temporarily fill his position, and Hot Cheetos vanished.  I almost forgot that they existed.  We've been serving apples and bananas as supplemental snacks on days that there's no dinner, and except for our trip to Chilis, I feel good about the nutritional content of foods that we serve after school.

Enter, Joe.  Just as quickly as he disappeared, he reappeared in my office one afternoon last week.  I suppose that I am glad he is feeling better, but I can't say I was glad to see him.  His first course of action was to distribute hundreds of fliers for the Hispanic Futures Conference (HFC).  The theme of this year's conference: "Graduate Ready: College, Career, Life."  The conference is undeniably a wonderful event, a way to provide resources and inspiration to Hispanic teens who are considering college after they graduate.  And yes, it's important to talk to middle schoolers about college too; you want to plant that seed early, and many of them don't hear about college at home.  However, our students are mostly 6th graders who are just adjusting to a new school and maybe, just maybe, have thought about high school once or twice.

As Joe handed out the fliers, the students jumped up and down with excitement, asked for more, and thanked Joe profusely.  I was baffled by the response.  That is, until I looked at the flier myself.  You can see a copy of the flier that was posted around our school at the HFC website.  Yet the flier that Joe passed out had an additional attachment: a coupon for a "buy one get one free" Whopper at Burger King.  I had noticed Burger King and Dr. Pepper logos on the original flier, and felt a fleeting frustration that we are helping to advertise these companies in a school.  But I brushed the feeling aside, acknowledging that HFC undoubtedly needs big corporate sponsors to pull off such a large and important event, a reality that I am willing to live with.

But a coupon for a Whopper?! Is it really necessary to use fast food as a means for promoting post-high school education?  The kids begged for more fliers all week, and let me tell you, it wasn't because they were excited about HFC and wanted to tell all their friends.  The had gone to the Burger King across the street with their friends after school, and now they wanted to go again.

A lot of these students, particularly the Hispanic ones, don't frequent Burger King, or McDonalds or KFC for that matter.  It's not a part of their culture - yet - and it had probably never occured to them that a Whopper would make a good after school snack.  Unfortunately, by handing out these fliers we are sending a message loud and clear - from school administrators and after school staff who these kids really look up to - that fast food is cool! And the excitement expressed by the few children who do frequent Burger King, was enough to send the whole group into a fast food frenzy.

Thanks Joe, thanks a lot.

Once again, I am faced with the food as an incentive dilemma.  In Food Food Food! this week, the teachers from the Sustainable Food Center taught the kids how to make guacamole.  No one wanted to attend the class, until they were told they would get to eat chips and dip.  So the class quickly filled up and the kids learned how to chop onions and tomatoes and avocados.  The teachers even snuck in a lesson on nutrition labels.  At the end, one student begged to take home the unused half of the lime, and they all chowed down on the deliciously green guacamole.  If the kids chose Food Food Food! simply because it meant more snacks, and they learned something about food and nutrition and cooking in the process, well I'm okay with that.

But I am more troubled by the Whopper coupon.  At some high schools in Austin, particularly the ones that my students will attend, the graduation rates are well below 50 percent.  Heck, the average graduation rate for Texas high schools is 33 percent! And you can imagine how few of those students attend or graduate from college or technical schools.  Post high-school education needs to be discussed.  Students need to be motivated, inspired, educated about their options.  But at what cost? 

Are fast food coupons really the most effective way to motivate and inspire our youth?

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