An old proverb states that if you give a man a fish, he will eat for a day. If you teach a man to fish, he will eat for a lifetime. The simple act of preparing people with the skills to provide for themselves opens up a future of possibilities and hope.

A similar philosophy drives the teachers and administrators at Urban Promise Academy (UPA), a middle school serving about 300 students in the Fruitvale neighborhood of Oakland, California. But instead of fish, they’re teaching children to understand the importance of healthy food. The hope is that not only will these students make healthier choices for today, but that they will be prepared to make better choices for their own communities and families in the future.

Urban Promise Academy teacher Allison Schaffer discusses her work and dedication to teach students what eating healthy, nutritious food really looks like.

To fulfill this goal, UPA began a partnership with La Clinica, a local community health group. The clinic provides a health educator for the school’s sixth, seventh, and eighth grade classes. The health educator, Allison Schaffer — or Ms. Allie as her students call her — hopes to teach her students about making better food choices and improving their health. While she’s doing that, she also hopes to help them understand how their community affects their health. But first, she has to get her students to understand what they’re eating right now — and what the consequences might be.

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Where to start

“I think a lot of my work is in getting them to think about what they’re eating, and then what comes after that is forming an opinion about it. After that, it’s what can they do about it,” Schaffer says. “It starts just by getting them to put thought into what they’re putting into their body because that’s not happening right now. They’re sort of absently eating chips and candy or choosing to not eat school lunch, which is much more nutritious than what they would be eating if they could buy their own food.”

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So where do you start when trying to explain food choices to kids who prefer chips to carrots and soda to water? You start with food they understand: junk food.

Schaffer brings in four different types of chips made from corn. She asks students to rank them from healthiest to least healthy. “Interestingly enough,” she says, “they always come to the right conclusion.” That tells Schaffer an important thing: these kids have the knowledge, they’re just not acting on it.

Chips and junk food aren’t the only food language these kids speak. Sugar-sweetened iced teas are very popular with this school’s student body, as is soda. While grams of sugar and daily percentages are likely too abstract for teenagers to grasp, scoops and mounds of sugar aren’t. So that’s exactly what Schaffer and her students do.

Using some of the students’ favorite beverages, Schaffer has them measure out sugar amounts of popular drinks. “Soda tastes good, but it has a lot of sugar and stuff that can harm your body even though you might not see it,” says Naomi, a 12-year-old seventh grader at UPA.

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Piles of sugar are concrete messages that students can absorb, and then share with their friends and family. Unfortunately, those messages are often drowned out. Marketing for high-sugar and high-salt foods bombards students when they aren’t in their classrooms. The flashy commercials and billboards grab their attention, while vegetables, fruits, and water don’t offer the same flash.

Bringing the message home

In a classroom, it’s easy to pick out the better option. The real hurdle is helping those same students make better decisions when they’re presented with a choice. That, as Schaffer point outs, isn’t done in large movements. It’s done little by little, step by step.

Schaffer encourages students to analyze their behavior and look for ways to gradually change. If they drink a soda every day, Schaffer says, they’re not going to stop drinking soda tomorrow. But maybe they will reserve soda for the weekend or only drink half a soda and save the rest for the next day. After that goal has been conquered, then you can move forward with eliminating the soda entirely.

Allison Schaefer quote

Schaffer's philosophy isn’t to shame or scare students into changes. Instead, she wants them to understand the consequences and realities of certain choices, whether that’s drinking soda and munching on chips, or not exercising and watching TV.

“I see a lot of obesity in the community, in parents, in students themselves,” Schaffer says. “With obesity comes a host of problems, like heart disease, diabetes, and that’s being manifested in parents, but it’s also starting to happen in the students.” Schaffer says rates of early-onset type 2 diabetes are increasing in the students she sees every day.

Those diseases make sense to students like Naomi because they see them in their parents, aunts, uncles, neighbors, and cousins. What else makes sense to students? Not feeling well, not having energy to run and play, and falling asleep in class.

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“The foods that my students are eating have a big impact on their learning,” Schaffer says. “Often, kids don’t eat breakfast. We do provide breakfast at school, but a lot of kids opt out unfortunately. So when a kid doesn’t eat a good breakfast, they’re sleepy, and it takes them a while to get ready to learn. If a student’s not eating lunch, by noon they’re crashing and they’re super tired and they’re not able to focus.”

For 14-year-old Elvis, an eighth grader at UPA, the realization that juice was usually not much healthier than soda was an eye opener. “I learned that juice has the same amount of sugar, even if it’s sprinkled with vitamins,” he says. “Energy drinks have the same amount, and it makes your heart beat go faster, and that’s bad for you because then when all the energy is down, you just fall.”

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Lack of energy is language busy middle schoolers understand, and as teachers like Schaffer know, lack of high quality, nutritious meals equates to students who are sleepy, grumpy, angry, and potentially defiant. Those issues can lead to behavior problems, and all because a student didn’t eat right — or couldn’t.

Turning school work into life work

It’s not access to food that’s so hard, Schaffer says. Ninety percent of UPA’s student body, which is also almost 90 percent Latino, qualifies for free or reduced lunch through the federal school lunch program. The lunchroom provides breakfast and lunch each day of the school week. Neighboring bodegas have stepped up their game by offering a smoothie bar with sandwiches and fresh beverages. A farmers’ market is only a little over a mile away, and many of the neighborhood stores carry fresh produce and meat.

To show her seventh grade class how easy change is, Schaffer takes them on a walking tour of their neighborhood. The Community Mapping Project lets students record everything around their school — restaurants, stores, clinics, homes, and even people. After a week of walking, the class comes back and analyzes what they found. They talk about how particular stores or businesses might impact the community for better or worse. They talk about what might happen if certain changes were made, and they’re allowed to dream of what could be done to help their community, a task many of them may never have considered before this classroom experience.

“By the end, hopefully, they start thinking about their community and what are ways they can access what already exists that’s healthy because there’s a lot here that’s already healthy,” Schaffer says. She also hopes her classes teach them to be more critical of their community and encourage them to think proactively about how they can help their neighborhoods change, grow, and do better — both for today and for their future.

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Stephen Satterfield

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