As cofounder of the nonprofit organization FoodFight, Deborah Lewison Grant teaches school system officials how they can make healthier food choices for students and staff alike. FoodFight is aiming to change the entire culture of school food to build a healthier future.
What inspired you to start working on childhood obesity?
My colleague [Carolyn Cohen] and I were both long-time New York City public high school teachers. During our time in the classroom, we become increasingly aware of the way our students' diets impacted their ability to learn. Seeing kids come to school — with a breakfast of orange chips and orange soda, followed by fast food for lunch (often grabbed from carts parked around the perimeter of the school or the local chain restaurants) and God knows what for dinner — was disheartening and totally counterproductive to their ability to function in the classroom. We also saw a steady increase in health and behavioral problems that seemed to stem from their steady diet of sugar, chemicals and other junk most often found in processed food. We looked to see what information was available, specifically geared for use with high school students, and were surprised to find a lack of materials that dealt with the deeper questions underlying the complexity of the food system and our food choices. Thus, FoodFight in the Classroom was born.
How are your helping to reverse childhood obesity?
Using schools as our platform, FoodFight arms teachers, staff, students and parents with the knowledge they need to make healthier eating and buying choices along with the tools necessary to become agents of change in their communities. We recognize that childhood obesity is only one symptom — albeit an alarmingly pressing one — of a food system that is organized to promote profit at the expense of public and environmental health. As educators, we realize it is ineffective to stand in front of a classroom, waiving heads of broccoli and providing lists of what we should or should not be eating. Instead, we help our FoodFighters recognize the way our media diet drives our food diet through cleverly crafted advertising and marketing campaigns, unpack the misleading nature of functional food claims, decode confusing food labels, understand the impacts of our current food policies on our food choices and learn ways to use advocacy to demand better options for themselves and their communities.
What is your biggest accomplishment so far in helping to reduce childhood obesity?
Our biggest accomplishment is starting the first Teacher Health and Wellness program that is designed for teachers by teachers. FoodFight understands that changing the culture of health and wellness in schools demands the buy-in of the adults responsible for establishing cultural norms – i.e. teachers, staff and administrators. Workplace wellness programs are the norm in corporate America but have not been regularly implemented in most public school settings, despite the fact that more than 7 million adults work in and around schools. When school districts ignore the health of their employees, the opportunity to influence the health and learning of students is lost. We leverage our ability to engage adult stakeholders (including parents) to serve as powerful role models for children, improve their own vitality and productivity and promote academic success and physical wellbeing throughout the entire learning community.
Who is your role model?
That is a tough question to answer, as there are so many people doing amazing work in the food reform space! On the investigative journalist side I would have to list people such as Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman, Michael Moss and Gary Taubes. We see ourselves as foot soldiers promoting their messages to audiences that might not have ready access to their writing. In the health arena, we look to, and are inspired by, the work of Dr. Robert Lustig, Dr. David Katz, Dr. Mark Hyman and others. In the nonprofit and school space, we are amazed by the work being done by people like Chef Bobo, who prepares chefs to purchase, prepare and cook local, sustainable and (most importantly) delicious food. We also are inspired by Rhys Powell, who started Red Rabbit to bring local and organic foods to NYC schools that lack kitchen facilities, as well as the team at FoodCorps, who are training college graduates to work as gardeners and food educators in underserved schools across the country.
What healthy snacks did you enjoy growing up?
My mother was an early adopter of the healthy food movement and we did not get (despite my and my sister's fervent pleas) too much junk food in the house. I don't think I tasted an Oreo cookie until high school. As a child, my favorite healthy snack was definitely "Ants on a Log," which are celery sticks filled with peanut butter and topped with raisins. I'm pretty sure I got that idea from a television show. Weirdly, I also liked cucumbers dipped in breadcrumbs.
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