Yesterday we began another round of my "food appreciation" classes at a private elementary school here in the District of Columbia.
In the introductory lesson, I work with the kids on the basics: how we perceive food, what happens after we put food in our mouths, the different types of foods and how some are healthier than others.
In one exercise, I have the kids close their eyes and we pass around cups of different foods and herbs to illustrate the role of smell in tasting foods. In another segment, we sample the four taste sensations: salty, bitter, sour, sweet.
To show them how calories work, I apply a blow torch to foods with different caloric values and carbohydrate composition, starting with broccoli, then potato. The kids love it when I torch a couple of marshmallows to illustrate how empty sugar calories are immediately burned and incorporated into the bloodstream. The marshmallows burst into flames, a moment of high drama and hilarity that leads to a brief conversation about diabetes and obesity.
But what really impresses me is what happens when the class ends and the kids file out of the room. Invariably, they beg me for the unused marshmallows. They are so disappointed when I decline. "Didn't we just talk about how bad those are for you?" I scold.
This reminds me of the study conducted earlier this year by the Associated Press finding that most programs aimed at teaching kids to eat better don't work. The U.S. government spends more than $1 billion on such efforts, but sadly, it isn't talking the kids need to stop eating all that junk food. They need their behavior changed.
I recently finished reading Lunch Lessons by Ann Cooper and Lisa Holmes. Their book covers everything from the importance of breakfast to the dangers of pesticides. But what I came away with is the factor most important in shaping kids' eating habits: the way adults eat.
So yesterday I had a queasy feeling as I watched the other after-school instructors standing around the microwave, wolfing down cheap noodle dishes off paper plates, swilling cans of sugary soda, by way of a mid-day meal or snack. Then I took a gander at the Wheat Thins I was munching on and noticed for the first time that they contain high fructose corn syrup. These are the same Wheat Thins the after school children are fed as snack food on a regular basis.
Last year I persuaded the school to stop serving a yogurt full of high fructose corn syrup and find something healthier. The kids never noticed the switch. But now I see we have a lot more work to do with the adults in this crowd.