In High Schools, a Critical Lens on Food

10/28/2011 8:19:19 AM

A commercial for McDonald’s fish sandwiches played in a classroom at Park Slope Collegiate one day last month as part of a class called the Science of Food. It was clear that many students had seen the ad — several sang along with the jingle — but this was the first time they had been asked to critique it.

“Who is the target audience for this ad?” asked their teacher, Joni Tonda.

“Us!” yelled the 23 students, practically in unison.

Through the class, which is part of a new program being taught at 15 city high schools, students are becoming aware that they are part of a lucrative demographic, and they are learning how companies target them.

Media literacy is only one part of Ms. Tonda’s lesson plan, which is based on a curriculum developed by a nonprofit group, FoodFight. The group’s founders, Carolyn Cohen and Deborah Lewison-Grant, two former public school teachers, set out to change the way adolescents think about food. By one estimate, 35 percent of adolescents in the United States are overweight or obese.

Though there have been several recent attempts to improve school food and to plant edible gardens at public schools — Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign among them — those efforts have largely been focused on elementary and junior high schools.

“High school students have been ignored in this conversation about the obesity epidemic,” Ms. Cohen said. “It’s a serious health crisis.”

The lesson plan blends media literacy, politics, nutrition and cooking. Students learn how to evaluate food labels, to prepare nutritious and affordable meals, and to identify the political and economic forces that shape their diet. Some will visit urban farms, food co-ops and a 400-acre farm upstate.

Sarah Katz, one of the first teachers trained in the program, in August 2010, said the curriculum appealed to her because of its interdisciplinary nature and because it was not preachy.

“Telling kids what they should and shouldn’t eat is not really effective,” said Ms. Katz, who taught a class called Food for Thought at Essex Street Academy last spring. “Teenagers don’t do things because adults tell them to. They need to care and have enough information to make their own choices.”

A FoodFight course begins with a critical look at marketing campaigns. Some students react with outrage. “Kids don’t like to be played by corporations,” Ms. Katz said. “They want to make their own choices.”

At another point, the class discusses why some neighborhoods lack access to healthy, affordable food, an issue that resonates with students because many FoodFight classes are taught in poor neighborhoods.

Students keep a food journal and learn how lobbyists try to influence federal dietary recommendations.

In the lesson about advertising at Park Slope Collegiate, Ms. Tonda organized her students into small groups and asked them to create a slogan for a real or imagined food product. Three boys in the back of the class designed an energy bar called Pro-Fit. “It’s more than protein; it’s Pro-Fit!” their slogan read.

Takiyah Newton, a senior, said, “I signed up for the class because I wanted to learn about the food we eat, and society and stuff.” A highlight, she said, was “learning about these companies and how they’re tricking us.”

Ms. Tonda said she had seen some changes in students’ behavior. After a lesson about the consequences of consuming too much sugar, Ms. Newton switched from McDonald’s sweetened iced tea to a no-calorie drink, Ms. Tonda said, and now brings bottled water to class. Another student, affected by the images of a crowded chicken farm in the documentary “Food Inc.,” has asked her mother to stop buying meat from industrial producers.

Ms. Katz, at Essex Street Academy, was skeptical at first that her students would alter their diets. But when she quizzed parents, it became clear that habits were changing. One student said he had cut out sugar-sweetened beverages. “His mom said, ‘So that’s why they’re still sitting there in the fridge!’ ” Ms. Katz said.

Before Brandon Rosales took the class last year, he drank a lot of soda and never thought about portion sizes. “I would skip breakfast, eat a light lunch and then stuff myself at dinner,” said Mr. Rosales, who acknowledged that he was overweight.

After his food journal revealed the unhealthy pattern, he began replacing juice and soda with water, he said, and started eating smaller meals. Since he took the class, he said, he has lost 10 pounds, and he continues to maintain the journal.

“Now my food journal looks clean,” he said. “My meals are good; I drink water. It’s like a healthy person’s journal.” His family history provides some motivation. “I have a family full of diabetics,” he said. “I want to live a happy life not having to put insulin in like my grandmas do.”

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