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Teaching Beyond ‘Eat Your Vegetables’



Deborah Lewison-Grant is totally willing to go for the gross out factor.
The one-time high school teacher co-founded Food Fight, a New York-based organization that offers a curriculum designed to teach high-school students about how food politics and consumerism effect what they eat. The curriculum includes a partnership with the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine, with medical students using tools like visual aids to teach students about the impact poor nutrition has on the body.
The rule for coming up with those visual aids, Lewison-Grant recalls: The nastier, the better.
“We said to them, ‘The best thing would be if you could bring us a dead cadaver and slap it on the desk,’” Lewison-Grant recalls, laughing. “‘But since you can’t really do it, just find us the most disgusting pictures you could find.’… It’s terrible, but those techniques worked for smoking, and we’re not above using them.”
That grossness aside, the Food Fight curriculum isn’t just about shocking students into better health habits. The nonprofit’s semester-long program focuses on how the corporate food landscape and consumer culture has created the country’s current food system, and then shows students ways they can help change it for the better.
“We don’t want to leave students with the feeling, ‘Well, now what do I do?’” Lewison-Grant tells The Inside Track. “We teach them that as consumers, they actually have an enormous amount of power, not only to select different kinds of food, but also demand different kinds of food.”
Food Fight started about two years ago, after Lewison-Grant and her co-founder, fellow high school teacher Carolyn Cohen, started talking about how their students’ nutrition habits were impacting their mood, and creating health and behavioral problems. The pair realized that the traditional nutrition curriculum just wasn’t having any impact.
So they decided to shake things up by crafting a curriculum that presents kids with the bigger picture. 
In the first half of the semester, instructors deconstruct the food landscape, explaining how advertising and branding shapes what people eat and explains why most of that mass produced food isn’t healthy. The goal is to instill a sense of urgency into the high schoolers, Lewison-Grant says.
“The one thing that teenagers find most appalling is that they’re being manipulated or played,” she says. “They really get angry. There’s this sense of betrayal, and this sense that food is this basic human right, and they have been complicit in allowing this to go unchecked.”
In the second half of the semester, students begin to learn about good nutrition and food habits (and that’s when the Mt. Sinai lecturers visit). Students go to a grocery store to learn about how to shop for healthier goods, and a chef comes to class to teach them how to make healthy meals.
In the final weeks of the class, students undertake a hands-on project designed to show them how to effect change. In previous sessions, students have assessed the meals in their school cafeteria, surveyed the food environment surrounding their campus and even convinced a local bodega to offer a healthy lunch option, for example.
So far, the curriculum has been tested in 10 pilot programs at a New York high school. It’s been so well received that Food Fight is developing two new programs offering students more opportunities to take action, Lewison-Grant says. One is a youth ambassador program that would see high schoolers teach younger students about nutrition issues; the other is an internship program that would place students in jobs in food-related fields.
Lewison-Grant adds that the biggest hurdle keeping the curriculum from reaching other campuses isn’t a lack of interest but a lack of resources, as the small nonprofit needs to raise more money in order to afford additional teacher training. (Want to help? Donate here.)
But the feedback — not just from students, but from teachers — is inspiring, Lewison-Grant says.
“To have a teacher say to me, ‘I’ve been teaching for 10 years, and this is the first time in a long time I’ve been excited by a class,’ that’s been really gratifying,” she says.