She comes flying into the room and perches herself on the chair facing me. Three minutes ago she had been minding her business sitting in class, unaware that she was one of the anointed ones. Due to her high body mass index (BMI) she was selected to come to chat with me, the visiting nutritionist.
Fearless, she presents herself ready for the challenge–with no idea what it may be. I introduce myself and tell her that I am a nutritionist. I ask her if she knows what a nutritionist is. Tentatively she says, “Someone who talks about being healthy?” I praise her response, refine it by adding the food part and tell her that most nine-year-old children don’t know what a nutritionist is. She clarifies that she is almost ten.
Now that we understand the context of our being together, I offer her a carrot. She scrunches up her nose like a rabbit. “No way”, she says. I ask when was the last time she had tried one. Apparently, it was not since she was a little kid and that was a long, long time ago. When I beg a favor and ask if she would try one for me, the terms include placing the garbage can in close proximity. Fair enough. I knew that the carrots I had brought were not the sweetest. However, the girl I had sat with just prior had enjoyed them well enough, so I ventured a try with my new guest.
One bite, one chew and into the garbage it went. “Ewww! It tastes like it came out of the ground!” In educator-fashion, I ask, “Do you know where carrots come from?” “From out of the ground,” she says, in educator-fashion, having proudly proved her point.
OK, moving onward. We discuss what she has eaten today. She is now well into our game and ready to play. For school breakfast–only an institutional plastic cup of juice. There were bagels too, but she hadn’t been hungry. For lunch–a piece of pizza–the every Friday and frequent random day of the month menu item. She only had a few bites though and mainly ate the little cup of cubed pears along with chocolate milk.
Then, as if she had been born and raised in this cramped little space we are sharing, she reaches down to the computer printer that is positioned behind her, deftly removes a piece of paper, takes a colored marker from the case I have on the desk and proceeds to draw me the piece of pizza. She indicates where she took half-mooned bites from around the edges and includes the carton of milk and pears in the picture as well.
I ask her about hunger and how and where she knows she is hungry. With a touch of condescension, she tells me she just has an instinct about when she is hungry. OK, I concede. Whatever the game, I seem to be losing.
She continues her diatribe that though she likes fruits, she does not like vegetables except for corn and lettuce. But, she eats ketchup, and as if daring me, says ketchup is made from tomatoes, so it is a vegetable. It is subtle, but I mutter some consent. She is obviously right as was Ronald Reagan on this issue. I am not about to argue– she is in full control by now. “Peas?”, I meekly ask. “Gross, like little eyeballs.” I had set myself up for that one.
And so it goes. What does she like? The usual culprits she admits–hot dogs, pizza, chicken nuggets, french fries, Hi-C and Kool-Aid. She drinks low-fat milk because her mom gets it on the WIC program for her younger sister. Her mom has diabetes–so she knows that food matters. I begin to ask her, that given our talk would she be interested in trying something new for herself and, before I can even finish the sentence, she says, no she will not try a new vegetable. At this point, I inform her she is killing me. “How did you know this is exactly what I was going to ask?” “I just knew.” I have now officially been schooled.
Finishing up, she says, “Can we meet next week?” Obviously, she thinks I need some serious remedial work. I tell her I won’t be back until next month, to which she sweetly replies that we can meet then. In closing, she adds that she will try to eat less of her unhealthy choices.
Though I am already completely won over, she is not done. She signs the pizza picture for me and offers it over as a truce. She wants me to see how well she writes her name and informs me that she reads above grade level. I thank her deeply, tell her she is a very amazing kid, and we agree that we both had fun.
On a growth chart, this young girl will plot out in the 98th percentile of BMI for her age. Her school will forward her measurements to the state health department and she will be counted as an obese kid. In body, she is, as my mother would have said, a little pudgy. In being, she is lively and lovely and in full possession of her priceless childhood innocence and instincts.
What my conversation with her and others teaches me, is that this area of nutrition education requires a large degree of humility. The story is not only about the weights and measures which is the current focus. And, while I don’t mean to dismiss nutrition education, what our children really need is nutrition provision. We don’t expect children to childproof their own homes–why should we be asking them to childproof their own bodies?
Our children deserve the birthright of both health and being valued for all that they are. Attention to good quality food in the world inhabited by our kids is what is required. I wish I could submit to the state an algorithmic index similar to that which assigns one’s BMI, but that would instead measure a child’s confidence, grace, and sense of self-worth–a self-esteem index (SEI). This girl’s SEI would be very high–but it might not be for long. I hope I did not cause any damage that day and that instead, it was more of an educational experience. Maybe it is true that teaching kids about nutrition is really important. I do seem to learn something every time.
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In health, Elyn
Elyn, I love the way you think! And you write with humor, warmth, wisdom, and love. I especially love the stories about children you work with. They are lucky little beings 🙂