“The vast majority of our multilingual students are the first in their family born in America, so their parents have very different ideas about nutrition and cooking. I think they often see the nutrition information coming home and don’t know how to even begin to cook that way,” Reikowski said. They may also have different ideas about “what a healthy kid looks like,” which can make lessons around body weight troublesome.
On the flip side, Reikowski discourages the teachers she works with from holding up students of color as food role models. “You can’t read ‘Too Many Tamales’ and call on the one Latinx kid in class and ask him to tell everyone about tamales,” she said. “If kids always feel like what they’re eating at home is either being judged as unhealthy or held up like it’s in a museum, it’s really hard for them to talk about what’s actually important to them about food.”
Giving Kids the Wrong Tools
In a perfect world, these advocates say, school nutrition classes could help foster an appreciation for and curiosity about all sorts of foods, while also educating children about issues like food insecurity and disordered eating. Instead, many curriculums seem poised to exacerbate disordered eating, by increasing children’s anxieties around food and body weight.
When Julie Ralston’s daughter struggled to calculate calories for her food log assignment, Ralston took a deep breath and showed her how to download a calorie counting app that would make it easier. “These are apps I’ve deleted off my phone because I know they aren’t good for me. To show her how to use one felt like teaching my child to do the most horrible, dangerous thing,” Ralston said. Even a few weeks after the assignment, Ralston said she was aware that Katie was still occasionally checking the calorie count on foods in a way she never did before.
In a year when teachers are so overburdened by the pressures of pandemic schooling, it can feel awkward for parents to speak up when we hear a stigmatizing comment or see an assignment that promotes restrictive dieting. But these advocates say it’s worth the effort. After Ganginis discussed her concern about the school’s nutrition curriculum with her daughter’s classroom teacher and principal, she testified at a county health council meeting, and was advised to find out who wrote nutrition curriculums at the state level. She found the state’s Health Education Specialist, who welcomed her suggestions, and two years later, Maryland’s newly revised state health curriculum includes no mention of weight and takes an “all foods fit” approach to nutrition rather than labeling foods as good or bad.
“The tough part now is waiting for this to trickle down, because whether the curriculum says it or not, teachers will talk about their own experiences,” she said. “The next step is to educate teachers directly and establish more rules, like we are not allowed to talk about weight or dieting in the classroom.”
Ganginis acknowledged that her advocacy was likely successful because of her professional expertise, but encourages non-dietitian parents to speak up as well. “I didn’t feel heard until a change was made,” she said. Start, as Ganginis did, by speaking with your child’s teacher. In order to foster a conversation, acknowledge how hard they’re working and share what you’ve observed, without insisting on a solution.