I chose to address Issue 3: How to Feed Myself first, because this is an issue that I knew I was struggling with when I was in high school. For many of the other issues I listed, I didn’t realize they were problems until after high school school. This one hit me hard from 8th grade on.
As I started writing this post, my story poured out of me. While the act of composing of it was cathartic, I don’t think I’m ready to share the details with the world, nor do I think my details are necessary in order to understand the larger problem. So, to make a long story short: I used to fight very disordered eating habits. As a high school student, Each meal was an emotional and physical battle, no meal more so than school meals. And I wasn’t the only one: out of ten of my close high school friends, seven of us struggled with disordered eating or eating disorders between high school and college.
Conversely, in an America that is struggling with the widespread problem of obesity, we clearly have issues as a society with food. We eat too much, we eat too little, we eat too fast. Food has become an issue, and I think school is one place we can work to help fix it, or at least stop from exacerbating the problem.
Problem 1: We eat too fast and without mindfulness
A few observations from today’s lunch room experience: lean, stressed looking girls walking in to the cafeteria, grabbing a handful of crackers and a small packet of peanut butter, and walking out. An 8th grade boy coming through the hotline asking, “can I have two rolls and two helpings of macaroni and cheese please?” I sat down at 12:15 to eat my lunch. Most students didn’t get their food until at least 12:20. The lunchroom was nearly empty again at 12:35. 15 minutes was all it took for these students to wolf down their mid-day meal.
Where is he health in any of these scenarios?
I was despairing the other day with my friend Sophie, who is originally from France, about how fast our students eat lunch and how frequently imbalanced their meal choices are. She reminisced that when she was in elementary school, the students would walk into the cafeteria, and an appetizer would be already sitting at each place at the table. The students would fill in the seats and eat the appetizers. Then they would wait and talk with their friends at their table, until the lunch staff brought out the main course, which would be served family style at the lunch table. The rules were that you could take whatever you wanted to eat, but you had to leave enough for everyone at the table to have some. Then, once everyone had finished their entree, the staff brought out dessert. Once everyone had finished dessert, the lunch was over, and you were dismissed from the table. Lunch took an hour and a half. Now THAT is how I’d like to see our schools do lunch!
Problem 2: We don’t make our own food
When I was in high school and junior high, I never had to cook a meal because my mom–beautiful, giving woman that she is–wanted to support our extra curricular activities, so she always cooked breakfast and dinner for us. One incredible blessing was that we always had family dinners–so at least I learned some semblance of food normalcy there. Nevertheless, I went off to college without really knowing how to make anything other than cereal, grilled cheese, or change for take-out. Since I did not learn to make my own food, I lost an appreciation for the tastes in food.
Knowing that I put basil in my stir-fry dishes now causes me to seek out the taste and smell of basil when I eat it. When I put a splash of cinnamon and cloves into my oatmeal in the morning, I savor the way those make my breakfast taste. If I don’t know how to make it, I don’t know how to savor it. So food, for me, was all about fueling up. Just eat quickly and be done with it.
Moreover, since food was all about fueling up, when I got to college, I did not appreciate the importance of letting a meal be, not just a time to eat, but a time to savor, a time to be thankful, a time to be mindful, a time to converse with friends or family, a time to take a break from the day.
Eating right was one of the hardest things I’ve learned how to do. Now I eat lots of vegetables, fruits, and whole grains. I never initially chose to eat healthily– I had to make a conscious decision to do so once I realized it was eat my veggies or have a heart attack before I turned thirty due to my hereditary high cholesterol. Now, I love kale, brussels sprouts, summer squash, and butternut squash. I grow herbs and use them when I cook. When I was 15, I couldn’t have told you what sage looked like, smelled like, or tasted like. I couldn’t have told you how to cook green beans–even green beans from a can.
Now, I try to eat organically and locally as much as possible. I don’t eat much processed or fast-food. I make my own bread. After reading Plenty: One Man, One Woman and A Year of Eating Locally; Animal Vegetable Miracle; Omnivore’s Dilemma; and Folks, This Ain’t Normal, I decided that it was time to eat real food that was grown close to my home, was picked by people I had met, and was eaten (by me!) in season.
I wonder if any of our students could tell me what vegetables are in season in December. Our lunch room cafeteria serves sliced tomatoes, cucumbers, and iceberg lettuce year round. Now I know that my lunch room cafeteria is MUCH better than most lunch rooms across America. But it certainly does not provide our students with any kind of food-education. Our lunch room currently is a fuel stop for them.
I wish that eating and cooking well could be part of school in our unspoken curriculum as well as our spoken curriculum. If I were in charge, I would turn lunchtime into a food class where students would learn healthy food relationships in the buying, making, and eating of it.
Here are just a few ideas of what this food class might entail. Students could:
- work in the kitchen of the school with the lunch staff to create lunch for their peers
- learn about where their food comes from, how many miles each item travels, how farmers grow and harvest each crop, how animals are prepared for consumption
- tend a garden and learn about the biology of real food vs. the chemistry of processed food
- learn how to make healthy meals on a budget or the art of cooking for one
- make meals for their family once a week
- practice sitting down to lunch, stay at the table for more than 10 minutes, learn to converse while savoring their meal, and then clean up after themselves
- One assessment of mindful eating might be to identify some of the flavors in a stew by taste alone.
- Another assessment might be to can some tomatoes for winter consumption, or to make a menu plan for the week with seasonal ingredients.
If high school is to prepare our students for life on their own, then one necessary lesson is going to be for them to learn how to make and eat healthy food. Because so many of our students in independent schools may be so blessed by privilege that they do not have the chance–or the need– to cook for themselves or choose the content of their own meals much growing up, it is even more essential that they learn how to do so in school.
As for me, I’d teach that class in a second. Hand me my apron, please. Oh, and I need an hour and a half for lunch. Bon appetite!