Wednesday, February 10, 2010

greens, blacks and browns

So the boys came back from horticulture class this past Monday with an abundance of vegetables: salad greens, radishes, russian kale, parsley. During fourth period, under the guidance of Mrs. H., the horticulture teacher, they assembled a beautiful chop chop salad with the bounty of their harvest, adding hard boiled egg, bermuda onion, chopped apple, carrot, Chinese noodles, and more. It was stunning. "Miss," they said. "Are you going to have some of our salad for lunch?" "If there's any left over, sure!" I replied enthusiastically.

They looked at me kind of funny. I realized later that this funny look meant "we don't eat no stinkin' vegetables." It's true - I've never seen a kid at G House eat anything green and fresh. Or orange and fresh. Or anything that grows in the ground in its natural, unprocessed state. When I've asked them why they don't eat vegetables, most will say they simply don't like them. They were never offered them as young children, and so they have developed anti-vegetable palates. I observe what my students do eat, which consists of meat (chicken, pork, sometimes beef), rice or pasta, potato chips, and soda. That's all, folks. No fresh fruit. No salad (only on special occasions, and then it's in the form of iceberg lettuce, January tomatoes, and unidentified salad dressing).

And so my students--who are predominantly black or brown, 96% of whom are on behavioral medication, all of whom get little to no exercise, and all of whom eat unbalanced, unhealthy diets--are expected to learn, grow and meet the academic standards set forth by the Massachusetts DESE. This is a nutrient- and activity-poor recipe for failure, no?

What if...

-kids in juvenile justice facilities were provided with a wider array of nutrient-rich foods and given junk/treat foods only occasionally?

-there were reasonable limits set on the amount of time spent watching television and playing video games - for all kids, including those in juvenile justice facilities?

-each juvenile justice facility offered some kind of comprehensive physical fitness program?

-Mrs. H.'s horticulture program were expanded beyond the limits of the DYS program and right into the communities that these kids come from, so that kids and families could be connected to affordable and nutritious food sources while building up the communities at the same time?

-these efforts were pressed into action, if only to a minimal degree. Would we see increases in academic performance and decreases in behavioral issues?

It occurs to me that the latest national efforts to create standards for healthy lifestyles are far from becoming reality in the educational setting in which I work. The federal crackdown on getting junk food out of schools...the First Lady's Let's Move program, which addresses childhood obesity...even the quasi-hip Mediterranean these concepts have any chance of becoming part of the reality at G House and programs like it at any time in the near future? Or is the juvenile justice system not considered part of "our nation's schools?"

I just read an article heading: "Low I.Q. Predicts Heart Disease." This comes from the latest headlines from the New York Times. I'll have to read it later but I can't get past this thought: that it is the cycle of generational poverty that weaves the web of academic underachievement, chronic health problems, drugs, crime, etc. We can't cure any one problem or issue using one single method or effort. It's like trying to perform social liposuction: it just isn't a healthy, sustainable solution. We have got to take a holistic, broad brush approach to all of these issues, not just waging little wars a la carte. Geoffrey Canada's Harlem Children's Zone is the best example of an anti-poverty effort that offers education, social service and community building programs. The data show that HCZ is working, and not just marginally. To read more about HCZ's dramatic success, take a moment to pore over its website at

I hear that President Obama intends to replicate Mr. Canada's success by creating 20 new "Promise Neighborhoods" across the U.S.. I cannot wait for this to happen. In the meantime, I'll keep fighting the good fight, teaching reading to my kids at G House, and figuring out a way to get some veggies into their mouths. Maybe I'll have to resort to bribery. Hey, it works for Geoffrey Canada.

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