I am happy to introduce my lovely cousin-in-law Tara, in Marry a Carrot’s first ever guest post! The topic of food in schools is a big one, and I am so glad Tara is opening the conversation on it.
When my diet became plant-based a little over 2 years ago, I knew I was going to confront certain challenges: How was my husband going to react? What were my family and friends going to say? Would it affect our social relationships? And the most basic challenge – what was I going to eat?! But looking back, I failed to see how my food choices would affect me at work (and I don’t just mean the constant stares and the “where do you get your protein?” comments in the lunch room). I mean in the classroom.
I am a teacher. I teach full day Junior Kindergarten and from that first bell at 8:30 in the morning until that last bell at 3:00 pm, my name is called somewhere in the vicinity of one to two hundred times. I feel like I don’t stop. They are dependent (and adorable) and their energy well surpasses mine. Therefore, in order to make my job somewhat manageable I try to limit the amount of sugar and unhealthy food choices as much as possible. I try to instill in my students the value of healthy eating and I teach them to make healthy choices when choosing what to eat for snack.
But then, what does “healthy” and “unhealthy” mean? What I consider to be unhealthy, is considered to be healthy by the greater part of western society. The school sends home a newsletter each year suggesting healthy lunches and snacks to parents, three quarters of which contain some sort of meat or dairy product. So where does that leave me? What am I supposed to say when my students look up at me with their big, trusting eyes, holding their up yogurt tubes or their cheese strings or their bologna sandwiches on white Wonder Bread and say “This is healthy, right?”. They look so proud of themselves for choosing a “healthy snack”, and in their defense, it is what they have been told is healthy food. When I look down at them though, everything inside of me wants to scream “No! That is NOT a healthy snack! It will rob your bones of vitamins and minerals and if you keep eating it, it will increase your chances of developing heart disease and cancer!!” I want to tell them the truth and stop the perpetuation of the immense lie. The lie that we’ve all been told and that so many of us still believe so vehemently: that meat and dairy are good for us, that they keep us healthy and that we – because we are humans and we can – should eat animals and their secretions.
A lot of my young students will pull the meat out of their sandwiches, stating that they don’t like meat and only want to eat the bread. In my mind I’m cheering “Woo hoo!! Victory! Great decision kid!” When this happens I’ll often tell my students, “I don’t like meat either”, hoping that in some small way this comment will stay with them and that they will continue to refuse to eat meat. But as a teacher, I walk a fine line. I have to be careful of what I say to my students and my influence on them. Although my intentions are good, these students are not my children and I do not have the right to place my beliefs on them. There was a situation this year, when one of my students opened his lunch kit and all he had left was colourfully packaged processed sugar (in various forms). He looked up at me and said “I don’t have a healthy snack”. I offered him one of the extra apples I had in the class and he happily accepted. The next day I received a note from his mother asking me not to make her child “feel stupid and not good enough by not letting him eat his snack. If I pack it, it is okay for him to eat it”. And she was right. She is his mother, she ultimately gets to decide what he eats. I assume she was insulted and possibly believed I was passing judgement on her, which is why she wrote the note with a tone insinuating that I had seriously harmed her child. I don’t think she even stopped to think about what I had actually done. I had given her child an apple. I had given him food that would fuel his brain and his growth, but still, I was in the wrong. Like I said, I walk a fine line.
And then there are all of the “health” initiatives at school. The “Power4bones” Unit (a unit on nutrition given to teachers, sponsored by the Dairy Farmers of Canada which teaches children that drinking milk gives you strong bones), there are the Subway sandwich lunches and the daily milk program, providing children with milk everyday at lunch. Not only does half the milk get wasted (which is a whole other post!) but we are teaching our children that these are healthy food choices. Yet somehow I end up the bad guy (or the crazy lady in the lunchroom) if I state my beliefs – and God forbid I state them in front of the children – they might actually BELIEVE me (insert horrified gasp here).
I’ve even had friends say to me that they feel sorry for my future children because of how I will make them eat. And you know, sometimes I feel sorry for them too. But not because of how they will eat. Because of the ignorance out there, and because of the way they will be judged. My hope is that one day, people will open their minds, or more importantly, their mouths, to this plant-based way of life. A way of life that teaches compassion, instills a respect for the earth and all of its beings, and promotes happiness from the inside out. After all, isn’t that what we really want to be teaching our children anyway?
Tara is a kindergarten teacher in the Ottawa area, where she lives with her husband. Tara has traveled all over the world, and is never shy about voicing her thoughts and feelings. Hopefully we will be hearing more from her in the near future!