With summer here, the school cafeteria may not be on your mind, but it’s been on mine recently! When my latest Cooking Light showed up, it featured a “Food Corps” volunteer who wanders around the cafeteria “cheer-leading” for healthy food choices. She encourages the kids to try the veggies and rewards them with stickers, talks about nutrition etc. I’ve written about the pitfalls of this kind of nutrition activism before. There is simply such a potential for harm, that we should proceed very, very cautiously, which I don’t think is happening. (Is the selective eater shamed, while the fat child is subtly or not so subtly bullied for his food choices? Does it give kids the impression that it’s OK to comment on what and how much others are eating?) There is so much to know about child psychology, the feeding research, and imagining the particular situations a child might be living through. Is there abuse or neglect around food? Are the parents bullying the child, is the child in feeding therapies and panicking around new foods?
Here is an illustration of one side of this story. My friend told me about her son, who at 6 loves the college guys who work at summer camp. Juice boxes are out, and this little guy wants to be like his hero so he asks for Gatorade. Well, when he decides he doesn’t like it, he asks for water, but children are very interested in what older peers/teens are eating and drinking. This same young man may be bribing the kids to try veggies and lecture about sugar… (Do as I say, not as I do?) I remember watching a TV special where some cool teens were sent into grade-schools and the teens sat with the kids and ate broccoli. WITH NO COMMENTING. They just kept them company and ate it. Kids were filmed observing and then eating the broccoli! It was cool and OK because the older kids ate it. One mother marveled that she had been trying for years to get her son to eat the broccoli…
So, I re-imagine the Food Corps role. Why doesn’t this passionate volunteer rotate tables, and every day sit and eat with the kids. She should enjoy the veggies, be good company and skip the nutrition lectures and cajoling. There is a lot of research that suggests that rewards, praise and pressure all backfire and make children like veggies LESS.
For a great video on comfortable cafeterias check this piece out. Really, it’s amazing! I wish every Food Corps volunteer would be required to watch this before setting food in a cafeteria.
What do you see with your kids? What do you think? Does your school have a food corps volunteer? Does a staff member play the cheer-leading role?