Life is Grand! I spend all day talking about food.
Since September, I have been teaching 480 students each week about nutrition in four different public schools. My students range in age from seven to ten and they live in the South Bronx, Harlem and Crown Heights. They are a lovable bunch of cuties - inquisitive, lively and frequently surprised.
Why surprised? Hearing that most of the food you eat is unhealthy is a big surprise.
From the time most kids can talk, they can demand more nuggets. Deep fried chopped up meat from we don’t want to know which part of an animals’ body is many kids’ favorite food. Once we addict those newcomers to the planet on sugar, fat and salt, they will be lifetime consumers. Half of all the young ones born after 2000 are predicted to contract diabetes. When I ask my students to, raise their hand if they know someone in their family who has diabetes, most hands wave in the air.
When I was a grade school kid, we were encouraged to go home and tell our parents to quit smoking. My dad enjoyed cigars, my mom menthols. My pestering did not stop their puffing but at least I was not lighting up. These days, the deadly compounds are on everyone’s plates.
So I spend the day discussing how soda causes heart disease, processed meat is carcinogenic and sugar destroys our immune system. But my students’ diets are hard to improve. School food, home food and corner store food are all packed with cholesterol, saturated fat, added sugars, artificial ingredients and preservatives.
As my students become nutrition facts and ingredient label readers, the kids I teach are trying to make better choices though the grown folks are conspiring against them, especially the food companies who relentlessly market their nutrition-free garbage for ingestion into our young people’s vulnerable bodies.
And who is listening to my lessons with the most eager ears? The students’ teachers. They never learned nutrition in teachers college, just like doctors do not learn nutrition in medical school. Our climate is ripe for ignorant nutritional choices because no one in the community seems to be able to guide us out of the deadly processed food labyrinth.
What’s the solution? After five months on the job, I have come up with one. Educate and feed. A nutrition education program including cooking should begin in kindergarten and continue every other year until sixth grade. A variety of fresh bananas, apples and grapes should be served as a mid-morning and mid-afternoon snack. All schools should have a garden plot in the playground or an indoor tower garden in the school lobby so kids can experience the joy of planting, nurturing and harvesting.
School lunches need a dramatic change. Children’s food should be natural, pure and from the earth. No artificial additives including colors, flavorings or preservatives should be included. My local favorite food spot in the Bronx and Harlem is a Trinidadian place called Jahlookova and their menu would be the healthiest and most delicious menu imaginable for our young people.
Here’s a sample menu of two days of dreamily delicious school food:
Day One: Brown basmati rice, quinoa, collard greens, sauteed mushrooms and string beans with lentil soup.
Day Two: Black rice, pumpkin stew, sauteed kale, BBQ mushrooms, split pea stew with red bean stew
When students are given samples of healthy food, learn to cook the food and even harvest some of the ingredients beginning in kindergarten, they will embrace the new menu. Parents and teachers should have classes that build an awareness that our current way of eating is killing us.
This way of eating is cheaper than the deep fried animal products currently being served at schools. What could we do with the extra money that we will save by serving a plant-based lunch? Buy fresh fruits including tropical fruits like mangos, papayas and pineapples for our young people. Since there’s no such thing as eating too much fruit (the more the healthier!), we should serve a wide variety of tasty fruits to our young people. Fruit is Nature’s Candy! Eating even 20 pieces of fruit a day is healthy and does not lead to any adverse effects on weight or blood pressure. It leads to digestive regularity, drops in cholesterol and better health.
We need to flood our elementary schools with comprehensive nutrition education. In addition to my nutrition students, I also teach middle and high school students history and English in an after-school program. They come into class with orange sodas, candy bars and chips. When I talk about how unhealthy their choices are, they just laugh and reach for another chip. By the teen years, it may be too late to have an impact on healthy choices. By seventh grade, we may already be as incorrigible as most adults.
Those who care for our collective health need to push for healthier food with the same vigor that we used to take down big tobacco.