Friday, October 18, 2013

Here Come the Food Police

One of the things that I like the least about teaching Primary-level students is the fact that we're expected to police their food choices, right down to the order in which the students eat what's in their packed lunch—sandwich first, maybe the beverage if it can't be put off until after the fruit or vegetables have been consumed, and only then, if there was time and the kid was still hungry, might they be permitted to contemplate the sugar-laden dessert item.

I hate this. It's not teaching them to have a healthy attitude towards food. It's teaching them that Food Has Rules, that some foods are intrinsically Good, that other foods are intrinsically Bad, and that the Bad foods have to be carefully regulated because they taste too good. Kids like sugar, without a doubt. And too much sugar isn't good for anyone. But there's a finite amount of anything involved when a parent packs their kid's lunch—it's not like there's an infinite supply of candy, cookies, and cake in a lunchbox that suddenly appears if the kid eats their pudding before they eat their sandwich! If it were up to me, I would let them choose the order in which they eat their lunch, and only ask that unless they're full, they at least nibble on everything that they've brought that day. But unfortunately, it's not up to me, and I have to watch (and help) as the same old counterproductive messages get passed on to a new generation.

You know, when I was a kid, I didn't like that we were given no real choice regarding the order in which we consumed our food. Sometimes I wanted to leave the sandwich for last because it was what I liked best (especially if it was corned beef with lettuce and mustard—or good old peanut butter and jelly, of course). And being forced to eat things when I didn't want to eat them yet actually turned me off of a lot of the healthy foods (especially fruits and vegetables) that I now really like—particularly celery, tomatoes, oranges, grapefruit, broccoli, asparagus, apples, carrots, cauliflower, and potatoes. It took years for me to get over that whole "I'm eating this because I have to" mentality and replace it with "this actually tastes pretty good, and I'm eating it because I want to." And I never quite managed to overcome that problem with bananas; when I was in Kindergarten and only going to school for half-days, I couldn't get enough of them. By the end of Grade One, after a full school year of being told "no, you have to eat this before you can eat something else," I couldn't stand them. And I still don't like them. (Well, maybe banana muffins aren't that bad.)

And it seems to me that at this time of the year, when even at the secular level we have (in Canada, at least) recently celebrated the harvest, it seems like a particularly bad idea to teach kids—even inadvertently—to hate food, especially when so many in our own country and around the world do not have access to enough food of any kind. If it were possible, I'd teach them to appreciate food, to share it when they know that someone hasn't got enough, and that eating what they're hungry for, when they're hungry for it, isn't a bad thing. (Students who, for known health reasons, have to carefully regulate their diets—such as students with diabetes—might be a possible exception, but ideally, there'd be a way to get them to enjoy a healthy variety of foods without reinforcing that Good and Awful-Tasting Food/Bad And Delicious Food dichotomy as well.) Making such a big deal about the order in which the students eat what's in their lunch just seems so damn counterproductive.

And I must add that it's a huge privilege to even have this much food that we're told that we have to food-police the students in our care. That we live in a society that currently holds a lot of messed-up ideas and attitudes regarding food and eating is not news. I just hate that the same old harmful ideas, especially in response to the current panic over childhood obesity (which is a whole other rant in and of itself), are being reinforced and even elaborated upon. (There's even one school in Toronto, in fact, to which students are not permitted to bring any junk food to school—not even granola bars.) We should be teaching kids to love good food, not hate it. And teaching them that their own preferences for the order in which they eat their food are wrong, and that they don't get a choice about whether they eat the sandwich or the cookie first, isn't a great way to do that.

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