The teaching profession is truly a labor of love, and in low-income or Title 1 public schools many teachers go above and beyond in their deepest efforts to close the achievement gap. I honor and have so much respect for all the teachers who get creative in motivating their kids, stay late hours to differentiate instruction, and do their best reaching out to parents, all while having a substantial amount of patience and positivity day in and day out. And unfortunately, a teacher’s salary (at least those teaching in OUSD public schools, and probably many others) is absurdly inadequate in relation to the amount of work they do, and is a sad, depressing representation of our nation’s value on education. I digress...
There are many factors that effect the health and wellness of students from low income communities, and the quality of public school lunches is atrocious (the topic of school lunches will have to be a post in and of itself). For many students, the majority of their calories are coming from the low-quality foods served at school (think sugar-laden cereals, greasy pizza out of a bag, rubbery burgers, and a ton of dairy from milk and cheese). Perhaps this is why so many children can't concentrate after lunch or develop neurological imbalances that make learning new concepts so difficult. Many students are raised by single working parents who are doing their best but don’t always have the time to cook a nourishing breakfast or dinner, or send their child to school with a homemade lunch. Or, maybe there isn’t a grocery store nearby for mom or dad to even access healthy, affordable food. With plenty of corner stores sprinkled around the neighborhood, many kids are raised on highly processed foods and become addicted to the hyper-flavored chips, candy, and sodas.
This dire situation coupled with my own passion for eating healthy foods inspired me to teach my students about health and nutrition every chance I got. One year my school was fortunate enough to have fresh cut fruit delivered to our classroom as a recess snack and I always made the time to promote the health benefits and delicious tastes of these foods. I also upheld a strict “no junk food” policy in my classroom during parent-teacher events or class parties. When students had to join me for lunch in the classroom, I would always show them my lunch (whenever I ate sprouts it always freaked them out). I also always started the morning with a giant mason jar of green juice, and my students could list all the ingredients inside. Sometimes, the best method of teaching is simply leading by example. Of course there were parents who showed up unannounced at the end of the day with cupcakes for their child’s birthday, but besides that, my students knew better than to bring in unhealthy snacks.
I remember one time we were having a class celebration. The students and I were doing a math lesson and a generous parent came into the classroom and dropped off two liters of soda. As the beverages were set at the table, silence fell among the students. There were a few quiet gasps, and then they looked at me, as if bracing themselves. I then thanked the parent for their donation and we continued with our lesson. I didn't want whichever student to feel bad about what the good intentioned parent had brought, plus I knew how important it is for students to have a choice.
When it was finally time for the party, not one of my students asked for the soda. Maybe it was that they were too afraid to even ask, or maybe it was the lesson we had just done on sugar in beverages. Either way, I was so proud of my students for embracing the healthier snack options and making a conscious decision about what to put in their growing little bodies.
Here are some strategies to keep healthy food in the classroom:
1. Celebrate with healthy food presented in a fun way.
The number one way junk food makes it inside a classroom is when there are classroom parties. In my classroom, we had “green smoothie parties” and my students LOVED it. I brought in my blender and all the ingredients (kale, pineapple, and mango for example), and blended it up in front of them. I talked about the benefits of each ingredient and then we talked about all the other combination of fruits and vegetables they could use at home. Then we served it up in little cups and straws and everybody gave each other cheers. The kids had a blast and would request the same whenever there was an opportunity for another celebration.
2. Forget the food and have an epic game of kickball outside. Instead of celebrating with food, celebrate with a fun activity. Kids love playing outside and love it even more if they get to play against their teacher! There are some kids, however, who might not like a friendly game of kickball, so it's always nice to offer another activity where you can still watch them (i.e. let them sit in the shade and do an art project of their choice).
3. If you’re a teacher, send home a letter at the beginning of the year about your healthy classroom policy. Have the parents sign and return. If you’re a parent, talk to the teacher and ask about the health policy and offer to create a letter to send home if the teacher hasn’t done so already. (Many schools also have health foods policy, however many times it just isn’t enforced). Teachers really do love when parents take the initiative to get involved!
4. If you’re a parent and have the time, offer to be in charge of a classroom party (the teacher will love you for not having to organize it) and sponsor a “green smoothie party.” Collecting $1 from each student would be more than enough to cover the cost of food. Or, collect a small sum and set up a beautiful spread of fruit.
5. For holidays like Halloween or Valentine’s Day, swap the candy for little toys or gadgets instead (pencils, stickers, erasers, rings, etc.) The Dollar Store is great for this! Or, change the celebration to a fun event that takes the focus away from food.
6. If you still want to have food at a celebration, make up a specific list of what parents can bring. For instance, each parent can sign up for one of the following: grapes, cut up apples with cinnamon, melon slices, carrot sticks, celery sticks, raisins, hummus, salsa, plates, mini cups with cute umbrellas, etc. This will minimize the possibility of parents bringing cookies and cupcakes. If you’re a parent, offer to create the list for the teacher and get in contact with the parents.
Now, let me be clear: I definitely like to eat cake on my birthday and I'm not saying that eating cupcakes at a party is something kids shouldn't enjoy. But in communities where processed foods are everywhere, and where type II diabetes is affecting kids as much as adults, I think it's important to embrace the classroom learning environment as an opportunity to teach students about real, whole foods. Kids can and will eat REAL food. They don’t need to eat “kid foods” and if they can partake in making the food, they will more likely be interested in eating it.