26 September 2011

An afternoon at elementary school

How familiar are inner-city kids with vegetables and healthy eating? I was pleasantly surprised to find out.

A classmate arranged for interested students to design and deliver an hour-long presentation about health at an inner-city elementary school. I signed up and received my assignment: first graders. How can anyone spend an hour discussing medicine with kids who can't tie their own shoes?

Lost, I turned to my brother for help. He challenged me to do something about obesity, sending along this must-see (but probably heavily-edited) video from Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution. The first-graders shown live in one of the most obese counties in the nation:

A challenge took shape: could my first-graders outdo their Huntington, West Virginia counterparts in identifying vegetables? With little more than a white coat, stethoscope, and zealous enthusiasm, could I inspire young children to improve their diets? My brother proposed a curriculum:

1. Explain how vegetables are a delicious and awesome part of a balanced diet.
2. Show various vegetables and see if students can identify them.
3. Have students draw a picture that has a vegetable in it.
4. Have students vote for their favorite vegetable.
5. Explain that anyone can be a doctor if they work hard in all subjects in school.
6. Feast on baby carrots.

I woke up early to snag exactly one of every vegetable from the local food co-op. My trip to the check-out portended badly for the vegetable quiz later that day, when the clerk and I disagreed over whether a root vegetable in my basket should be rung up as a leek or a garlic stalk.

A thoughtful classmate who is passionate about nutrition and excellent with kids thankfully offered to join me and split teaching duties. We drove to a rough part of town and found our school.

First graders say adorable things. Our presentation began something like this:

Med Student A: "We're medical students and we're here today to talk about vegetables! Vegetables are...yes, I see a hand."
Ashley: "One time, I got sick and I throwed up."
Med Student A: "Yes, that happens sometimes. Another question?"
Josiah: "My throat hurted...and...my dad made me eat ice."
Med Student B: "Yes! Ice can be good for you. So, about vegetables--"
Deidre: "I ate a banana yesterday for dinner."
Med Student B: "Awesome! I love bananas too! They're so delicious and good for you! So vegetables are..."

We eventually moved on to the quiz. Students successfully identified broccoli, carrots, cucumbers, and even eggplant. They displayed a surprisingly good grasp of what sorts of food were nutritious and which were not. They understood where vegetables grow, where they can be purchased, and even that you can grow your own vegetables in your garden and your yard. Our election crowned carrots as the crowd favorite, although ballot-stuffing plagued the polls. Unfortunately, "one man, one vote" is so foreign a concept that we tallied 50 votes among only 20 students. Fortunately, their math skills were so elementary (15 minus 11 was beyond their powers) that no one realized the election was a sham.
The election candidates

The students unleashed their creative juices and were keen to show us their handiwork. We saw plenty of fruits and vegetables as well as a few head-scratchers.

Annalise (holding up drawing): "What is this?"
Me: "That looks like a bunch of grapes!"
Annalise: "And this?"
Me: "That's a beautiful banana!"
Annalise: "What is this?"
Me: "Umm...I'm not really sure what that is. Is that an airplane?"
Annalise: "Aero-plane!"

It felt like I was doing improv acting again, where I had to heartily embrace all of my fellow actors' ideas (even when it meant portraying a crazed edentulous Gulf Coast fisherman) and encourage and support them. These young minds were delightfully bursting with creativity and non sequiturs.

At the end, it was time to feast on baby carrots. I have never seen kids so excited to eat carrots before. Even the kids on the playground, who we didn't teach at all, devoured our carrots after my fellow med student and I gushed over how delicious they are. Saturday morning cartoons are filled with advertisements successfully pushing sugary cereals and candy onto these malleable young minds. But this one wonderful afternoon, vegetables reigned king.

In the fight against obesity, there is hope after all.