Believe it or not, when kids are given an opportunity to choose what they eat, there is a good chance that they will choose a healthier option. A few days ago I was at a local grocery store with two kids that my girlfriend watches – a nanny job of sorts. While at the grocery store in proper non-parental fashion, we bribed them with one selection from the store so long as they behaved during our visit. As we tooted around making our grocery selections, we came to the cookie aisle. Their selection was soon made—a HUGE bag of frosted animal crackers with sprinkles! So, naturally I asked them why they chose that bag of cookies out of the endless selection they were given. Their response, “We don’t have these at home.” I thought that answer to be fair enough; I mean after all, they are six and four years old. On our way to check out, my girlfriend wanted to get an assortment of fruit that she could snack on in days to come. As she was making her selections, the kids did something that absolutely surprised me. They said they “want(ed) some of these,” referring to a pile of nectarines. The fact that they wanted something else is not the surprise, but what followed should be a wakeup call. My girlfriend responded that if they wanted those they would have to put back the animal crackers. Strangely, the kids were so pumped on nectarines that, to them, it was seemingly a no-brainer. With each of them holding the nectarine they had selected, the kids and I ran (yeah, I’m a big kid too) back to the cookie aisle to replace the demoted selection.
On the drive home, I asked them a blanket question, “Why did you choose the nectarines instead of the cookies?” One hollered, “Because they taste better!” And the other chimed in, “and they are better for you.”
This short grocery store trip became a reminder and lesson to me that it is not always necessary to dictate what a child will and will not eat. Given a fair chance to taste and choose what they do or don’t like, a child’s choice may indeed be the exact opposite of what we assume. I assumed they would take the big bag of cookies and devour them as kids do. I never expected the HUGE bag of cookies to be trumped by nectarines.
At the Regional Food Bank we have recognized the need, but more so, the want of more healthy options. In response we have made a conscious decision to ramp up the amount of fresh produce we will offer to our partner agencies and, in turn, to the clients they serve. By the end of June 2012, we hope to have placed more than 10 million pounds of fruits and vegetable into the hands of Oklahomans who may have never been given an alternate choice. If the clients choose not to take or eat any fruits or vegetables that is their prerogative, but at least they will have the opportunity. In other words, if cookies are the only option there is a good chance the cookies will be taken, but if the option is cookies or nectarines, someone (maybe just one) may choose nectarines instead of cookies…but at least they had the choice.
Have you ever stood in a grocery store wondering how you were going to provide enough food for your family on $30 a month? Have you ever traveled all the way to a soup kitchen that wasn’t even open, or lost precious time in a waiting room to find out that you don’t qualify for SNAP benefits?
I’m lucky; I haven’t. But, I know a lot of students who have. That’s because we’ve had a lot of students come to the Regional Food Bank to participate in our 15-minute hunger simulation over the last few weeks.
Though a hunger simulation may sound like an act of deprivation, it’s really more an exercise in frustration. That’s the way I like it. I greet classes that have decided to come to the Food Bank for this excellent field trip experience and I smile big and tell them how happy I am that they came. It’s true, too. I am happy that they came. And I am happy that they are about to be frustrated.
I don’t want it to seem like I take general pleasure in other people’s stress and anxiety because normally I don’t. I make an exception for the students participating in our hunger simulation because while they are brooding over budgets, sweating in the SNAP office, and anguishing over the mock month that is quickly ticking to a close, I know that they are experiencing something important. They are experiencing the reality of hunger.
And I hope that when we finish the exercise and I tell them that over 600,000 Oklahomans live with food insecurity, they know what that means and what it feels like. I hope they make the connection that many of those Oklahomans are very like the personas they took on for the hunger simulation – regular people just trying their best to get by.
That’s why I feel a small surge of satisfaction every time I see a student throw his or her hands up in front of our fake soup kitchen’s closed sign because I hope that frustrated student understands, at least a little, what it’s like to live with hunger every day.
1:40 PM on Friday, December 2nd, 2011No Comments
Sitting on my desk is a coaster with a picture of two children playing, and above the picture it reads: “Because kids have better things to think about than hunger.” What a great daily reminder of why I do what I do here at the Food Bank. As a new AmeriCorps Member serving in the position of Programs Outreach Coordinator at the Regional Food Bank, I have the opportunity to work closely with two of our Childhood Hunger programs – the Kids Café program and the Backpack Program. Each of these programs is designed to provide nutritious food to children who might otherwise go without an evening or weekend meal.
True hunger is a concept to which I was virtually oblivious to as a child. I am sure there were times it was not easy for my parents to make ends meet, but not having enough food to eat was never even a thought that crossed my mind. I had some awareness (thanks to occasional missionary slideshows at church) that there were hungry children far away in some other part of the world, but in my own country – let alone my own school? Not a chance.
Of course, throughout my young adult years, I have become more aware of issues that exist here at home, but I really had no concept of the magnitude of child hunger in our state before I began working at the Food Bank. The figures are staggering: over 240,000 of Oklahoma’s children (that’s one in four!) suffer from food insecurity – meaning they have inconsistent or inadequate access to nutritious food at home. The Backpack Program alone provides weekend meals to over 10,000 children each week throughout central and western Oklahoma – and the program is still expanding. That figure floors me: 10,000 plus children are at risk of going without food to eat each weekend in our service area alone!
I occasionally take time to read through some of the stories that school coordinators of the Backpack Program pass along to us, which is both heartbreaking and reaffirming simultaneously. The problems these children have to deal with are often so astronomical that a backpack full of snacks seems insignificant at best. However, reports of the joy and gratitude with which both children and parents receive this food remind me of the importance of what this program does – it eliminates one worry for these children, so that regardless of what other circumstances they face at home, at least there is security and peace of mind in knowing that this basic physical need is met. This frees children to focus more energy on learning, growing, exploring, and imagining, as elementary aged children should be able to do…because kids really do have better things to think about than hunger.
Programs Outreach Coordinator