I have actively engaged in researching nutrition and American eating behaviors for the past twenty years, at least. I have not even attempted to extricate my personal involvement in our food system from the 30,000-foot view of the state of things. Questions about food and what it does to our bodies color every day for me, both as a participant and an observer. So it rather surprised me when one instance of how food affects life jumped out and crystalized as a definitive impetus to write my latest book. The moment was indeed personal, having not to do with me as an eater or a cook, but with my abilities as a teacher to influence the lives of students I cared about. And it stood out as a high-resolution snapshot of the weird and dangerous state of American food systems.
I taught my Nutrition classes using Power Point. I was trying to illustrate something about BMI (Body Mass Index) and put up a slide that showed the torsos of two adolescent girls back-to-back, one a healthy weight, and the other decidedly chubby.
The pretty thirteen-year-old Latina slouched in the front row, cocked her head and regarded the slide with a skeptical squint. Without straightening, she crossed her arms so determinedly she might have been warding off a vampire, albeit a spectacularly stupid one, and then threw down the gauntlet.
"What!? You mean we're not supposed to have rolls?"
Her girlfriends backed her with menacing comments about "skinny little bitches." Even the most difficult boys shut up for once to see how I would respond.
My surprise at her question told me that I had blundered into cultural quicksand, and I was going down fast.
This was merely one of many intractable difficulties I encountered trying to teach nutrition and healthy behavior to adolescents at high risk for Type-II Diabetes. (True, this says a great deal about my failings as a wannabe middle-school teacher, but that's another story.*)
Food ranks right up there on the get-it-or-die scale, number three behind air and water. It's so fundamental to everything about life that glib suggestions to a kid about what to eat and how to exercise do more harm than good. The demographic of Hispanic adolescents like those in my class seemed to eat mainly Flamin' Hot Cheetos and wash them down with Coke while they sat around playing games on mobile devices.
Their hard-working parents provided them meals that largely consisted in sugary cereals and inexpensive fast food. The "food desert" excuse doesn't really hold true in ag-rich San Mateo County, California, even in the neighborhoods where this at-risk population shops. Farmers markets abound, and the mom-and-pop mercados carry lots of fresh fruit and vegetables. Why are these people locked into unhealthy lifestyles, and how can they clamber out of the downward spiral such behaviors mean for their children?
My students were good kids, and their parents cared for them deeply, otherwise they would not have been in my summer-school class for high-potential learners from "underserved" schools. What had gone wrong in a land of plenty that love could not fix? Lots, it turns out.
*I whined to my family about my difficulties in getting my healthy-lifestyle message across to these kids. My young-adult daughters stared at me in slack-jawed amazement. Said one, "You mean you actually put that slide up there? How do you think those girls feel about you attacking them on body image?!?" Attack? Body image? I was (ham-handedly, apparently) trying to save their lives! Then my husband helpfully noted that my students no doubt regarded me as an alien -- some "skinny, old, white lady" coming out of nowhere to lecture to them about what was wrong with how they lived their lives. I am white, but did not see myself as either skinny or old. But there I had it; and I definitely saw the disconnect.